14 Jun 2015

Kwame Kwei-Armah: bringing Bob Marley to Baltimore

On the corner where Freddie Gray was hauled shackled into a police van, a mural has blossomed.

The 25-year-old’s death, a week after his arrest, sparked protests and riots across Baltimore and once more drew international attention to the strained relationship between America’s police and black communities.


Above: A mural at the spot Freddie Gray was arrested by Baltimore police

At Baltimore’s Center Stage Theatre, a play has sold out – Bob Marley’s songs of revolution newly powerful.

The British director Kwame Kwei-Armah wrote and directed the musical that was in rehearsal, even as the protests and riots that followed Freddie Gray’s death gripped the city.

“We were in the middle of a technical rehearsal when maybe 1000 people marched past the theatre,” said Kwei-Armah.

“Everybody ran out of the theatre and ran outside in order to cheer, or to support, or to watch this historic event happening. And it was profound for us because it’s moments like that where you think: this is real life and we’re doing theatre. How do we serve, how do we exist when these profound things are happening all around us, not just on our doorstep, but literally outside of our house?”

‘Second civil rights era’

The city curfew enforced by Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake curtailed rehearsals for the play’s opening — but gave seismic shape to its themes.

“I think America is going through its second civil rights era. I think people can feel that in the air.

marley kwame

Above: Kwame Kwei-Armah on the set of Marley

“What we’re hearing is cries of ‘I don’t know how to tell my children how to survive, I don’t know how to teach my sons to not be brutalised or how to negotiate the system’.

“But also white America saying ‘I don’t know what you want of me because you have a black president, I don’t know what you want of me because there are black mayors, I don’t know what you want of me because I’m not as racist as my parents or my grandparents.'”

Performing for the people

With the National Guard patrolling the streets and Baltimore’s residents searching for answers, Kwame organised for the entire cast and crew to visit the epicentre of the Baltimore riots to perform for the people.

“Not for profit theatre is not here just to entertain, but it’s here to be a member of the community, it’s here to serve the community. And I, as a person of colour as we say here, I felt that I had to do something.

“And so I came to our actors and I said: ‘look, these songs of freedom, we should go onto the streets and we should sing them.’

“It’s probably one of the most special moments of my artistic life. So many people gathered around us. I could see as we were singing ‘Get Up, Stand Up’, people across the road were standing by the subway station and dancing and punching the air, and cars were driving past tooting their horns and old women were playing the piano.

“People would come up to us and say: ‘thank you for the healing.’ That moment of just trying to say we’re not just here to entertain, we’re here to be part of the community, it was a rather wonderful moment.”

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