- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 6, 2005

The winter theater season gets off to a tough but compelling start with the American premiere of Kwame Kwei-Armah’s “Elmina’s Kitchen,” a sobering play about West Indian immigrants living in Hackney, a London neighborhood known for its polyglot gangs and its “Murder Mile.”

Fans of British television may know Mr. Kwei-Armah for his long-running stint on the BBC medical drama “Casualty” and as a participant in the reality show “Fame Academy.” Inspired by the jazzy musicality and languid riffs of American playwright August Wilson, Mr. Kwei-Armah began writing for the theater.

“Elmina’s Kitchen” was commissioned by London’s National Theatre in 2001, and premiered in 2003, netting the author the Evening Standard Award for most promising playwright.

Set in a woebegone take-out shop in Hackney, “Elmina’s Kitchen” gleams with promise. Like his mentor Mr. Wilson, Mr. Kwei-Armah displays a virtuoso ease with dialogue, and with language that dances and darts with prizefighter-grace. His characters speak in a West Indian-Northeast London slang that sounds exotic and working class all at once.

For the first 10 minutes or so, you may feel as though you’ve wandered into a foreign language production without subtitles, but after awhile you relax into the rhythms and the patois begins to make sense.

In the world of “Elmina’s Kitchen” (the name “Elmina” refers both to the mother of one of the characters and a Portuguese slave port on the west coast of Africa), words and language are tantamount.

In traditional Caribbean culture, a man’s reputation and virility are not only measured by sexual conquests — but also by his prowess in sweet talk, telling stories, engaging in “slang” contests, and the ability to argue and debate in an erudite manner.

The characters in Mr. Kwei-Armah’s play definitely possess the gift of gab. Especially the older men hanging out in Deli’s (Curtis McClarin) shop, Elmina’s Kitchen — rendered by set designer Neil Patel in such lovingly shambling detail you want to step up onstage and order a roti during intermission.

Baygee (Ernest Perry Jr.) is a transplant from Barbados who peddles ladies clothes and is fond of telling rambling, ribald stories about amorous women, while Deli’s n’er-do-well father, Curtis (Sullivan Walker), is a flamboyant public orator whose thundering diatribes lack only a pulpit.

In contrast to the garrulous older characters is Deli, a former boxer who keeps his grief and frustrations bottled up inside. He’s angry at the world, but most of all angry at himself for having dreams. “Man is not supposed to want. I wanted,” he says in a rare outspoken moment. His son Ashley (LeRoy McClain) and Digger (Thomas Jefferson Byrd), a flashy local gangster, are even more taciturn than Deli.

They are men of cruel action, more concerned with hip-hop clothes, multiple cell phones, and fancy cars than jawing and drinking with a bunch of guys from the old country.

“Elmira’s Kitchen” is a frank cautionary tale about the sins of the fathers haunting the sons. Deli desperately tries to save Ashley from gang life, but because he has not come to terms with the violence within him that also runs throughout his family, the cycle continues.

The play deals with how the cycle of violence dehumanizes generation after generation. And the ending is a shocker as Digger shows Deli just how troublemakers are dealt with in today’s street culture.

Mr. Kwei-Armah shares Mr. Wilson’s penchant for dialogue and plenty of it, and for the most part, “Elmira’s Kitchen” displays linguistic fireworks.

However, Mr. Kwei-Armah does have a tendency to become infatuated with his own voice and some of the speeches go off on aimless tangents that bog down the second act, when the play should be moving tautly toward its devastating conclusion.

Director Marion McClinton, known for his staging of August Wilson plays, tries to counter these indulgences with bursts of dance, whirling movement, and West Indian music.

With a playwright this exciting, you can forgive a little chattiness. Mr. Kwei-Armah gives us a heady glimpse into a culture caught between African-Caribbean tradition and assimilation into a white man’s world.

You can sense the actors have caught the excitement, as the cast delivers fiery performances. Mr. McClarin is a pent-up dynamo as Deli, who strives to do the right thing and Mr. McClain exudes cynicism and youthful vulnerability as the son tempted by street life. As Digger, Mr. Byrd contributes a startling, troubling performance — one part laid-back island man, one part amoral demon.

Mr. Perry brings a welcome note of comic relief as the yarn-spinning Baygee, as does Mr. Walker as Clifton, before his character descends into inchoate blithering in the second act.

Yvette Ganier, as the play’s sole female character, Anastasia, beautifully conveys the hurt and determination of someone struggling to move on.

Beyond the brutality, “Elmina’s Kitchen” is also a call for forgiveness. In order to break the cycle, Deli must learn to forgive Curtis for being such a womanizer and layabout, and Ashley has to realize that his single-dad Deli did the best he could. Without forgiveness, Mr. Kwei-Armah seems to say, we are all shackled to the past.

***

WHAT: “Elmina’s Kitchen” by Kwame Kwei-Armah

WHERE: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Jan. 30.

TICKETS: $10 to $60

PHONE: 410/332-0033

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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