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Not Enough English

Elmina’s Kitchen Needs a Little More Linguistic Spin

HOME COOKING: (from left) Leroy McClain and Sullivan Walker dish it out in Elmina's Kitchen.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 1/12/2005

Elmina’s Kitchen

By Kwame Kwei-Armah

At Center Stage through Jan. 30

It’s easy to understand why journalists are so eager to describe actor/playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah as England’s August Wilson. Like the playwright perhaps best known for Fences, Kwei-Armah sets his one-set plays in richly evoked, working-class, black neighborhoods, even if the location is London rather than Pittsburgh. Like Wilson, Kwei-Armah has family members and co-workers wrestle over petty grievances and small inheritances that stand in for larger issues of individual ambition and collective responsibility. Kwei-Armah, in fact, can do everything that Wilson can do, except write that intoxicating language. But this makes all the difference in Kwei-Armah’s 2003 play, Elmina’s Kitchen, which receives its U.S. premiere at Center Stage this month.

All the elements are there. Deli (portrayed by Curtis McClarin), the ex-boxer who has taken over his mother’s neighborhood restaurant, has knotty relations with everyone around him—Ashley (LeRoy McClain), the 19-year-old son torn between college and the local gang; the never-seen Dougie, the older, richer brother about to be released from prison; Clifton (Sullivan Walker), the father who abandoned Elmina many years ago; Anastasia (Yvette Ganier), the waitress whose flirtatiousness leaves Deli paralyzed; and Digger (Thomas Jefferson Byrd), a gang enforcer who eats his chicken at Elmina’s.

The squabbles over sex, money, and fatherhood take place amid the restaurant’s blue-and-white-tile floor and orange, chipped-Formica tables. The playwright is obviously aiming for a grand statement about these West Indian immigrants who find themselves torn between the islands and the northeast London neighborhood of Hackney, between hopes for a better life and a dog-eat-dog cynicism. But the verbal music never comes.

The result is not a bad play; Elmina’s Kitchen is a convincing, entertaining slice of social realism. In his attempt to honestly portray poor, plain-spoken characters, though, Kwei-Armah often succeeds too well for his own good. Nor can he discover a way out of the box of his own characters’ pessimism.

The show would work a lot better than it does if it didn’t have such an underwhelming performance at its core. The role of Deli requires an actor who can barely suppress his fiery frustration, but actor Curtis McClarin is all suppression and no fire. The most vivid turns come from the old men—Sullivan Walker as the calypso-singing, jive-talking Clifton and Ernest Perry Jr. as gray-goateed, impish customer Baygee.

Marion McClinton, who has often directed the premieres of Wilson’s plays, directs Elmina’s Kitchen at Center Stage. He keeps things moving at a smart pace and does a good job of weaving Caribbean music, both old and new, into the drama. But he can’t change the fact that Kwei-Armah is an actor first and a writer second. As a result, Elmina’s Kitchen resembles a middling episode of The Wire more than Two Trains Running, Wilson’s own play about a restaurant in a poor black neighborhood.

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