24 March 1967
Hillingdon, London, England, UK
|Known for||Actor, playwright, singer, and broadcaster|
Kwame Kwei-Armah OBE (born 24 March 1967 in Hillingdon, London), born Ian Roberts, is a British actor, playwright, singer and broadcaster. In 2005 he became the second black Briton to have a play staged in the West End. (Ray Harrison Graham's Fringe First award-winning play GARY played at the Arts Theatre in 1990.) Kwame's award-winning piece Elmina's Kitchen transferred to the Garrick Theatre in 2005. He voiced Mtambo in The Lorax.
He was brought up in Southall. He changed his name aged 19 after tracing his family history, through the slave trade back to his ancestral African roots in Ghana. His parents were born in Grenada. He has 4 children.
Kwei-Armah was born in Hillingdon Hospital and named Ian Roberts. He changed his name aged 19 after tracing his family history (in which he first became interested as a child after watching the TV series Roots), through the slave trade back to his ancestral African roots in Ghana, descendent of Coromantins. His parents were born in Grenada, then a British colony. His maternal grandmother moved to Trinidad where she later died, leaving her five children including Kwei-Armah's mother to become orphans in Grenada. Kwei-Armah's mother moved to Britain in 1962. His father, Eric, moved to Britain in 1960 at a time when there was high unemployment in Grenada, and found work in London at the local Quaker Oats factory.
When he was one year old, Kwei-Armah's family moved to a two-story terraced house in Southall, London, where they rented out two rooms to help to pay for the mortgage. Kwei-Armah started at his first primary school as a five-year-old, and after a teacher disciplined him by kicking him in the back, his mother took on three jobs to pay for him and his two siblings to go to a private stage school – working as a child minder, as a night nurse at Hillingdon Hospital, and doing some hairdressing work. At the age of about 35 years his mother had a stroke leading to left-sided weakness, from which she slowly recovered.
Kwei-Armah grew-up in Southall in the 1970s at a time when Asian families were moving in and white families were moving out, and he perceived animosity from the Asian community towards the Afro-Caribbean community. One day, at the time of the April 1979 Southall riots, his father came home after the evening work-shift and took him out to see the Hambrough Tavern on fire. Kwei-Armah saw a police van arrive, and when the police started to charge at the crowd using batons and shields he ran home frightened. From the upstairs front room he saw the police chasing black and Asian boys along the street followed by skinheads, who also had batons and shields, chasing behind the police. The event shocked him making him feel that he was living in an alien environment, and reinforced his resolve to do well in his education. He later wrote about the event in his first play, A Bitter Herb.
Appearances on stage, television and radio
Kwei-Armah first achieved fame playing the paramedic Finlay Newton in the BBC drama series Casualty from 1999 to 2004. His other television credits include appearances in episodes of the Casualty's sister series Holby City, the BBC's Afternoon Play, Between the Lines and The Bill. In 2003 he appeared as a contestant on the Reality TV programme Comic Relief does Fame Academy and subsequently released an album, Kwame. In 2007, he starred as "E.R. Braithwaite" in the two-part BBC Radio 4 adaptation of To Sir, with Love.
Kwei-Armah has recently been seen in an episode of the new BBC1 revival of Robin Hood, as an ambitious town planner in Lewis, and in the feature film Fade to Black opposite Danny Huston, Christopher Walken and Diego Luna. He is also a regular on TheatreVoice.
He presented the 15 February 2009 episode of the Channel 4 documentary Christianity: A History, during which he spoke about his own Christian faith and African identity, in addition to the African origins of Christianity in Ethiopia.
In the summer of 2009, he presented the Channel 4 series, On Tour with the Queen, which looked at the impact of Queen Elizabeth II's tour of the Commonwealth that took place between November 1953 and May 1954. He also met with King George Tupou V of Tonga, Sitiveni Rabuka and Queen Elizabeth II herself on the trip. In March 2010, Kwei-Armah appeared in the final and penultimate episode of the fourth series of Skins.
On 15 May 2011 he was the stranded person on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs. His musical selections included the political power-rap of Chuck D and his band Public Enemy, Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley and Lord Kitchener. He said living with his parents was like existing with two very different types of theatre in the family home: he would be serving his father and his pals rum, while his mother was hosting church meetings in the living-room.
In 2011 Kwei-Armah chose Marcus Garvey as his subject for BBC Radio 4 Great Lives - listen to the programme here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00y2d8c
Work as a playwright
Kwei-Armah's fifth play, Elmina's Kitchen premiered in May 2003 at the National Theatre, and was shortlisted in the "best new play" category at the 2004 Laurence Olivier Awards. That same year, Kwei-Armah received the Evening Standard Award for the Most Promising New Playwright of 2003. In 2005, Kwei-Armah was nominated for a BAFTA award for the television version of Elmina's Kitchen.
Walter's War, a drama written by Kwei-Armah and based on the wartime experiences of footballer Walter Tull's life, was made by UK TV channel BBC Four and screened on 9 November 2008 as part of the BBC's "Ninety Years of Remembrance" season in November 2008. Kwame also had a cameo role in the film.
Kwei-Armah is a member of the board of the National Theatre and was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Open University in 2008, and in 2009 was a judge for the BBC World Service's International Radio Playwriting Competition. On 28 February 2011, Kwame was named as the new artistic director at Baltimore's Center Stage Theatre, replacing Irene Lewis who served in the position for 19 years. Kwame is no stranger to Center Stage, his play Elmina's Kitchen was staged in 2005, followed by Let There Be Love in 2010, and in 2007 he directed Naomi Wallace's Things of Dry Hours.
- The Lorax - Mtambo (voice)
- Elmina's Kitchen
- Fix Up
- Blues Brother Soul Sister
- Hold On
- A Bitter Herb
- Big Nose
- Statement of Regret
- Let There Be Love
- Seize the Day
- "Beneatha's Place"
- Walter's War
- "20 Questions With...Kwame Kwei-Armah". whatsonstage.com. Retrieved 29 January 2012.
- "Kwame Kwei-Armah". Theiapolis People. Retrieved 22 September 209.
- The London Gazette: . 16 June 2012.
- "OBE". Retrieved 2012-06-15.
- "Celebrating the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act". Hillingdon Council. 2007-10-12. Retrieved 2009-09-22.
- "The House I Grew Up In, with Kwame Kwei-Armah as participant". The House I Grew Up In. 2009-09-22. BBC. BBC Radio 4. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00mr232.
- The House I Grew up In Radio 4
- Statement of Regret--Cottesloe, London, review by Michael Billington in the Guardian, 15 November 2007
- Saturday Play--Statement of Regret, BBC Radio 4, 18 July 2009
- Kwame Kwei-Armah at the Internet Movie Database
- Kwame Kwei-Armah is a judge in the BBC World Service and British Council's International Playwriting Competition 2009