When Kwame Kwei-Armah left London to move to Baltimore, he was exploding with questions about this strange land on the other side of the Atlantic, where he was planting not just himself, but also his wife and young son.
"As I was starting to find my footing, I thought, 'How do I really get to know my new land, not just now, but moving forward?' " says Kwei-Armah, who is one year into his new job as Center Stage's artistic director. "And I said, 'I know. I'll ask the writers.' "
The result — and the centerpiece of the theater's 50th anniversary celebration — is a series of 50 three-minute filmed monologues based on the theme of "My America."
Participants include such nationally known playwrights as Christopher Durang, Neil LaBute and Anna Deveare Smith, along with such Baltimore stalwarts as Rich Espey.
The monologues will be performed by a handful of television stars — Michael Emerson and Bobby Cannavale — as well as hometown favorites Tracie Thoms, Terry O'Quinn and Jefferson Mays, who developed their skills locally before forging national reputations.
Events this weekend include a gala with live performances and a panel discussion among playwrights.
In advance of the anniversary celebration, four of the scribes chatted by phone about their own fleeting and highly idiosyncratic glimpses of the country they call home.
Neil LaBute would prefer to think that he's nothing like his father and has absorbed none of his late progenitor's attitudes toward the world. But he knows that the reality is more complicated.
LaBute is the author of such brilliant and acerbic works as "In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends and Neighbors" — plays and movies that frequently cast a jaundiced eye on gender relations. But though he's often accused of being a misanthrope, that may be a misunderstanding of the playwright's deepest intent. Instead, LaBute's plays can be read as cautionary tales, as a kind of warning to himself.
The two monologues that he wrote for "My America," which will be narrated by two longtime collaborators, actors Bobby Cannavale and Gia Crovatin, are no exception. Of all the plays submitted for the Center Stage project, only LaBute's are told by characters that, the audience gradually realizes, can't fully be trusted.
"I love this sense you get when you're talking to people who feel like they're on the right side of the issues, but their understanding isn't very broad," LaBute says.
"I like to think of my father as someone quite distant from me in terms of our views. But I have to constantly remind myself how small the space between us really is. There's a distance between where you are as a person and where you want to go."
In both monologues, the narrators refer quite explicitly to their upbringings.
In "Current Events," the character known as the Woman tells the audience, "I whisper to myself each night that I'm living a dream, this dream that my folks had for me …"
And in "Tour de France," the Guy congratulates himself that he's more enlightened than his father, who, if he'd seen a black man riding a racing bike, would have assumed that the fancy two-wheeler had been stolen.
"The thread that connects us all to family is really strong," the 49-year-old LaBute says.
"My father was a trucker, and I became a playwright. I think of him as a person who was in a lot of ways unknowable. He was gone a lot, and when he wasn't distant physically, he was quicksilver in terms of his emotionality.
"We weren't close. But the other day, I was laughing at something, and I realized, 'That's how my father used to laugh.' "
It took Lynn Nottage 20 years to wrest even one good result from the state of Utah's middle-of-the-night execution of a black prisoner.
Her monologue, "Kill the N#&&@R," is based on the 1992 lethal injection of William Andrews for three murders that were committed by an accomplice. (In Nottage's play, the death-row inmate is named "Jimmy Bates.")
At the time, Nottage, now 47, was an impressionable young woman working in the press office for Amnesty International. She was ecstatic when the governor seemed to have granted a second stay of execution for Andrews.
"When I went to bed that evening, I thought we had saved him," she says.
"I had more faith in the criminal justice system than I do now, and I was absolutely, 100 percent sure that he was not going to die. Waking up the next morning to the news that he'd been executed remains one of the most devastating experiences of my life."
Nottage left Amnesty International within the year, and over time the intensity of her anguish was blunted.
But after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was fatally shot in February while walking in a Florida neighborhood, all of Nottage's pain, anger and sadness resurfaced. The monologue, which will be read by actress Maechi Aharanwa, is partly a memorial to Martin, though the teen is never named.
"Twenty years later, I'm surprised that we're still having this conversation," Nottage says, "and that there aren't more checks and balances to keep young black men from effectively being lynched."
But Nottage hasn't won acclaim as a playwright because her work is unrelentingly grim. Her first major success, "Intimate Apparel" (which had its world premiere at Center Stage in 2003), is a delicate tone poem about a black seamstress in early 20th-century New York.
Her 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, "Ruined," has been widely praised for telling the stories — with warmth, humanity and humor — of women who were raped in the war-torn Congo.
"Ultimately, we're incredibly resilient creatures," she says. "People really do get on with the business of living."
In Nottage's case, it was Andrews' execution that inspired her to become a playwright.
"I wanted to have a certain kind of dialogue with the culture," she says.
"And I was not achieving it by working my ass off every day writing press releases and op-eds. I decided, 'I'm a storyteller, and perhaps I can achieve the same goals by writing in the medium that I love.' "
It's been two years since the kid jumped in front of the train, but Lee Blessing still can't get it out of his head.
Perhaps that's because the young man with the dull blond hair was standing just a short distance away from the playwright before he leaped onto the tracks in front of the massive yellow locomotive. Perhaps it's because Blessing never saw his face.
And perhaps it's because the dead boy was about the same age as the students that Blessing teaches in his creative writing course at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
So when it came time to write a monologue on the theme of "My America," Blessing found himself grappling with impulses similar to those that animate his best-known work.
1988's "A Walk in the Woods" faces down catastrophe on a global scale. The play deals with the relationship between two negotiators in the arms race, an American and a Russian, but the inclination to destroy seems to be universal.
Blessing's monologue will be performed by Michael Emerson, who portrayed the character of Ben on the ABC television series "Lost."
"When you witness something that extreme, you can't help but carry it around with you," says Blessing, 62. "For a young person to be that desperate sort of imprints itself on your psyche.
"It's also a reflection of the world and the society that we live in. Suicide may be more shocking when it happens in this country, because we have a more elevated lifestyle here. We're not starving in the streets."
If there was a newspaper article about the article, Blessing never read it. Nor did he seek to learn details about the victim: his name, age or specific problems.
It may be that understanding one person's reasons for ending his life is less important than exploring the reasons to keep breathing.
"Suicide assaults our most fundamental belief that life is worth living," Blessing says. "Those of us who are still walking around tend to think that it is, but it's not chiseled someplace on a mountain. When someone chooses to die, it reminds the rest of us that we're survivors."
When Barack Obama was elected president, it set off a confusing mix of feelings inside playwright Lydia Diamond that she's still trying to sort through.
Make no mistake: Diamond was ecstatic. Not only did she deeply believe in Obama, he and the first lady had come from the same erudite and economically privileged African-American class that Diamond had grown up observing.
"When Barack Obama was elected, it turned something in me in terms of my own American-ness," says Diamond, 43. "I felt a level of inclusivity that I hadn't felt before. That which I had written would never happen, had not only happened, but so grandly.
"But it left me with a feeling so complicated that it's hard to put into words."
As the only child of a single mother who was an academic, Diamond grew up in college towns and had a bird's-eye perspective on the travails of these mixed-race, elite hamlets.
Diamond's best-known play, "Stick Fly," just ended a three-month run on Broadway. The work is a comic exploration of the fissures within a well-to-do African-American family, where disparities in social class are every bit as debilitating as issues around skin color.
After Obama was elected, Diamond's anger about racial prejudice didn't magically evaporate. She also felt protective of Obama and worried that someone would harm him. And she feared that Americans would become complacent.
As she puts it: "I was concerned that white people who had worried about these issues would say, 'Oh, now everything is all right' and feel absolved."
So she wrote a monologue that's a humorous riff on her mixed feelings, while simultaneously teasing the audience. Viewers never are quite sure who's speaking to them — Diamond herself; the actress Tracie Thoms; or a character Thoms is playing.
The answer, of course, is all three. Thoms starred in "Stick Fly" on Broadway, and Diamond wrote the monologue with the actress in mind.
But what comes through most strongly in Diamond's monologue is her ebullience and a renewed optimism.
"I would like to thank our country," the monologue concludes, "for 'Project Runway,' the NFL, Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, anti-depressants, Ambien, HBO and Denzel Washington and amber waves of grain."
Center Stage at 50: A Weekend of Activities
Baltimore's venerable regional theater has a slate of activities planned for its 50th anniversary weekend. For details, call the Center Stage box office at 410-332-0033 or go to centerstage.org.
"An Enemy of the People" Henrik Ibsen's incisive drama is currently receiving a spate of productions around the U.S., perhaps because its examination of a corrupt political system couldn't be more timely. Center Stage's production is set during the Kennedy-Nixon debates, when television became a major factor in the political dialogue.
"As we are running up to the election, this is a wonderful piece to investigate the role of the citizen, the role of the individual, and to have the debate about the majority and the minority," says Center Stage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah, who is directing the production.
The show runs Thursday through Oct. 21 at 700 N. Calvert St. $10-$60.
"My America" The gala celebration at 7 p.m. Friday will feature appetizers, live music, performances and a screening of several three-minute monologues. $75.
An Open Conversation with the "My America" Playwrights. Kwei-Armah will moderate a panel discussion with national and local playwrights, including Christopher Durang, Lydia Diamond, James Magruder, Rich Espey, Polly Pen and Gwydion Suilebhan. Free. Noon Saturday, Center Stage's sixth-floor rehearsal hall.
50 Fest: From Page to Stage. The 17th annual Baltimore Book Festival extends down Monument Street this year courtesy of Center Stage and, on Saturday, inside the theater itself. There will be costumed characters, street painting, backstage tours, workshops, and live performances. Noon to 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday; noon to 7 p.m. Sunday. Free