“When they asked me if I’d be interested in doing a Stax musical, I said ‘Hell yes!’ exclaims Kwame Kwei-Armah of Baltimore Center Stage. The production, called “SOUL: The Stax Musical,” chronicles the rise and fall of Stax Records and soul music, entwining the story of the Civil Rights movement and soul’s biggest stars: Otis Redding, The Staple Sisters, Isaac Hayes, Wilson Pickett and more.
The production, Kwei-Armah says, was perfect: the ideal send-off as he exits stage left from the Charm City theater scene and returns to his native England to serve as art director for London’s Young Vic. After all, he’d grown up listening to African American music in Britain, citing the influence of both the music and its politics on him in his youth. As he put it: “Soul defined me.”
And now, it seems things have come full circle.
“I loved my time here [in Baltimore], and if I had to put a word or feeling to it, I would say ‘love and fun,'” he says. “For me to be able to dance and boogie — I thought it was apt.”
The creators of the show, too, thought the city was the perfect fit.
“We’re one of the few cities with such a large African American presence,” he says of their decision to approach him with SOUL, “and our white and non-binary audiences love this music, too. They grew up on it. The audiences here in Baltimore are just right for this sound.”
Previews of the show have proven that theory. Kwei-Armah says audiences have been singing along all the way through (“and loudly,” he adds with a laugh). Leaving is bittersweet; looking back, he anticipates missing the community the most, “the sense that it was worth giving every inch of one’s body and mind to a community so receptive and full of love and open to art.”
As he bids his farewell, his final hope is that audiences will come out and see the show.
“It’s great fun. I’m on Preview Four and the audiences are just lapping it up – loving the music, enjoying the story. If you’re a fan of soul music, it’s the place to be.”
SOUL: The Stax Musical will play at Baltimore Center Stage from May 9 – June 10. Learn more here.