Kwame Kwei-Armah's first season at the Young Vic – 'a brilliant strike against systemic inequality'
Sarah Crompton reflects on Kwei-Armah's first season announcement, and what it means for the long-term significance of the venue
It's not every press conference that begins with a song and ends with a selfie. But then Kwame Kwei-Armah, who announced his first season at the Young Vic with an event that did just that, is not your average artistic director.
For one thing, there's his style. Salmon pink jacket, paired with matching shoes. Then there's his gentle but determined way of talking. He says "in my humble opinion" a lot, and sounds like he means it, but there's steel beneath the modesty. His opinions are strong and provocative. And there is, of course, the fact that he is the first director of African Caribbean descent to run a major British theatre. That's a brilliant strike against the systemic inequality that stops black Britons feeling theatre is for them.
Kwei-Armah said he was "petrified" to be following in the footsteps of David Lan
But what I love about him most is the way he talks about theatre. He's an actor and a playwright as well as a director and he has excelled in every field. So he is always worth listening to. But there's more to it than that. "For me theatre is church," he says. "We come to bear witness, to share, to hold hands and commune." He says this with such rare excitement that he makes me want to see every moment of his season.
We heard an extract from the musical Twelfth Night with which it will open – sung with vivid directness by Gabrielle Brooks, who will play Viola – and thus set a benchmark for the inclusive spirit that Kwei-Armah hopes to promote, since the production (co-written by him and Shaina Taub) will feature a 50-strong community ensemble. Next up are two "modern classics" revivals that should, in Kwei-Armah's view become part of a new canon: The Convert by Black Panther star Danai Gurira, and Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train by Stephen Adly Guirgis. I can't disagree with his call on either of those.
Then there's a series of filmed monologues called My England, examining the nature of Englishness and trying to stop the language of debate being "weaponised" as it has been post-Brexit, a play by Naomi Wallace called Things of Dry Hours, which will open in the Clare studio, and Draw Me Close, a hi-tech affair that seeks to unite theatre and new developments in VR.
What was notable about the way Kwei-Armah talked was his warmth
On top of all the regular community work the theatre is engaged in, the Young Vic has also launched YV Unpacked, which takes Spring Awakening (directed by Caroline Byrne) out of the theatre and into places where drama is not normally staged (refugee centres, prisons, refuges, and homeless shelters) and presents it to people who would normally never dream of coming into a theatre. That's a superb initiative as is – potentially, and providing they reach the right people – a ticket lottery for £5 tickets for the first preview of every production, which seeks to bring new faces into the place.
Kwei-Armah admitted that he was "petrified" to be following in the footsteps of David Lan who has run the Young Vic with such success for 18 years. But he also talked about standing on Lan's shoulders, looking towards the future, building a socially relevant and easy to access theatre. "Our job is to be about the change you want to see," he said.
What's significant on paper about this season, relatively modest though it is (Kwei-Armah has only been in post since February) is its intersectionality. It tackles all kinds of inequality simultaneously and across the board, and it does so consciously and with an openness that is still rare in British theatre.
But what was notable about the way Kwei-Armah talked was his warmth. In himself, he represents a new and very welcoming face. I fear I may have been cut out of the selfie (I'm the wide face right on the side if I am in it), but I look forward to being part of his season. Along with everyone else, I felt I had been embraced by his vision. It is going to be fun to watch it unfold.