Former Casualty star Kwame Kwei-Armah looks back on his life and career for a new BBC1 documentary Imagine...My Name Is Kwame, and reveals the role models and experiences that have shaped him....
After years spent dreaming of becoming a popstar, it was playing popular paramedic Finlay Newton in Casualty from 1999-2004 that made Kwame Kwei-Armah a familiar face on TV.
Since then he’s carved out a hugely successful career on both sides of the Atlantic as an actor, award-winning playwright and director and made history in 2017 by becoming the first African-Caribbean person ever to run a major UK theatre, London’s Young Vic.
Now, in this fascinating and very personal hour-long documentary, My Name is Kwame, filled with archive clips and interviews, presenter Alan Yentob chats to Kwame to chart his extraordinary life and career.
We caught up with father-of-four and grandfather, Kwame, 53, who was awarded an OBE in 2012 for an interview to hear about his role models, his dreams and some of the experiences that have shaped him…
Kwame Kwei-Armah speaks to us…
How did if feel having this special programme dedicated entirely to you and your work?
Kwame Kwei-Armah: “I was actually quite nervous because I seldom watch anything I’ve ever done or see myself on TV! Watching clips of myself on Casualty for the first time was actually very funny. I thought, ‘Oh. That was actually alright’. It was also incredibly moving for me to look back and see footage from the 1980s of where I grew up and to revisit the drama school which I haven’t been back to since I was 16.”
What are your memories of growing up in Southall, west London?
KK: “My home was full of love but to get to my school I had to walk each day through the surrounding area, which was filled with worst excess of extreme racism. The chances of you being chased, beaten up or insulted on a daily basis were very high. So I had this juxtaposition of love, warmth and super-security at home and fragility outside.”
What was your biggest dream as a young boy and teenager?
KK: “I wanted be the British version of Lionel Ritchie, complete with Jehri-curl hair! Singing was my whole life, it was everything I had worked towards but when I got to 25 and things still weren’t happening I decided to stop. It completely broke my heart but I knew I had to direct my energy into something else. I woke up one day and said, ‘Right, come and take everything from my music studio. Want a free keyboard or sampler? Come and get it!’ I gave it all away.”
Who were your role models?
KK: “Definitely my mother but also the American playwright August Wilson followed closely by Mohammed Ali because he was magnificent at what he did and fearless about who he was. I started to write when I was about 32 because I was bored of waiting for people to write the kind of stories I wanted to be in. I soon realised that writing was my power.”
You changed your name from Ian Roberts to Kwame when you were 24. Why was that so important to you?
KK: “My mother grew up in Grenada and in the Caribbean slaves were given the name of their master. I didn’t want to pass onto my children the name of someone who had once owned them, so I went back to Grenada to find an ancestral name. My mum was very understanding, my aunties were like ‘You’ll always be Ian to us.’ It was only when I did Comic Relief Fame Academy on TV they changed their minds. It was all ‘Vote Kwame’. They couldn’t go round asking their friends, ‘Have you seen my nephew Ian on Fame Academy?’ That didn’t work!”
How do look back on your Casualty years and being part of such a hugely popular show?
KK: “Those days were like a university for me. It’s where I got to understand how TV works, how producers produce, how script editors edit and I made such good friends. It was a wonderful time and it sounds naff because all actors say it but it really was like being part of one big family, especially as on Casualty we would spend long 13 hour days together.”
What has been your proudest career achievement?
KK: “Probably taking my mum to The Savoy where I was being given an Evening Standard award for Most Promising Playwright in 2003. My mum was an orphan and grew up in different foster homes in colonial Grenada. She’d spent her childhood listening to these kind of glittering events on the radio but that day she was walking up a red carpet with her child to see him receive an award. It still makes me emotional thinking about it.”
Your ethos is to make theatre inclusive and accessible to everyone isn’t it?
KK: “Yes completely. Being the first African-Caribbean director of a major theatre, my job is not to pull the ladder up but to open the building. We take our plays to old people’s homes, hostels, prisons. Theatre should not be an elitist thing. We’re not here for the 4 per cent of the population. Everyone deserves art. “
How has lockdown affected the Young Vic and theatres generally?
KK: “Right now it’s like having an aeroplane but not being able to fly it. At the Young Vic we were supposed to be celebrating our 50th anniversary with a huge party, DJs, bands on the balcony and fifty stages to cover 50 years. We’re working out how to still do something special. Lockdown has been incredibly hard for everyone in all theatres.”
When and where are you happiest?
KK: “I’m always very happy directing a musical. The other time I’m happiest is being at a dinner table with my family. Lockdown has been a blessing in that respect. Three of my four children live at home and the other is just around the corner. I’ve not spent this time with them all since paternity leave. It has been wonderful and invigorating.”
Imagine…My Name is Kwame is on Thursday August 6, BBC1, 10.45pm