David Adjaye and Kwame Kwei-Armah Talk Basquiat and the “Black Gaze”

Photo courtesy of The Manhattan Theater Club

The stage at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, where Kwame Kwei-Armah’s production of The Collaboration opened last week after a run earlier this year at London’s Young Vic Theatre, has been arranged to look like an artist’s studio, with high ceilings and off-white walls displaying iconic works by Andy Warhol, like his silkscreen paintings of Marilyn Monroe and Campbell’s soup cans. The bio-play, written by Anthony McCarten, imagines the process by which Warhol teamed up with Jean-Michel Basquiat for a 1985 exhibition of 16 paintings the two artists made together, famously promoted with fliers that positioned the two artists as dueling boxers. The stage design, then, is meant to evoke the sense of both intimacy and claustrophobia: two visionary artists and outsized egos, with thirty years between them, crammed into a small New York City studio, where they’re made to hash out spiritual and philosophical differences about their methods of creation and the very function of the artist at the tail-end of the 20th century. Warhol, played by Paul Bettany, is cagey and insecure, while Basquiat’s (Jeremy Pope) swaggering airs belie his struggles with addiction and his unease with the lily white art-world establishment that’s begun to embrace his works of neo-expressionist punk. “Black artists in particular become archetypes,” says Kwei-Armah, who in his direction sought to restore Basquiat to the ranks of 20th-century intellectual giants and explore the strained dynamics between creative upstarts and artistic elder statesmen. Last year, Kwei-Armah and the renowned architect Sir David Adjaye had a collaboration of their own, where Adjaye did the stage design for Kwei-Armah’s London production of Changing Destiny. Below, the two British titans of art and theater talk about the historic mischaracterization of Basquiat, identifying with the “righteous rage” of young artists, and the eternal question of scale.—JAKE NEVINS


KWAME KWEI-ARMAH: David, my beautiful friend!


KWEI-ARMAH: Can I kick off?

ADJAYE: Please, Kwame.

KWEI-ARMAH: When you have a superstar friend like David, one’s always able to pull that card at a dinner party. But actually, what I often talk about whenever David’s name comes up is that he is amongst the most sought-after architects and artists in the world. And when I called and said, “David, would you come and do this piece at the Young Vic with us?” I fully expected him to say, “I don’t have the time” and I would’ve been cool and the gang. And instead he said, “Of course,” and gave us one of the most innovative designs that one could ask for. It was a design that enabled my staging to be as adventurous as I would want it to be.

ADJAYE: Thank you, Kwame. I mean, I’ve just always been a huge admirer of your trailblazing nature, being a person that shatters so many glass ceilings and in a sector where it’s not easy. I had never done anything in theater before. What was lovely was that I realized you weren’t asking me as a theater expert, you were asking me as an artist. So that just always touches me, when people want me to express who I am or what my sensibility is in their medium, or in another medium, or whatever it is. And so that just stimulated the creativity in me. It was a no-brainer. It was just such a pleasure and I’m so glad you responded so well. And your team just took it to another level with their incredible technical expertise, understanding what to do with the lighting and things like that.

KWEI-ARMAH: It was a wonderful vibe, wonderful vibe. One of the beautiful things about being a theater director is knowing, wherever you are in the world, that you can land and walk into that black box and you go, “I know this space. I’m at home here.”

ADJAYE: An incredible luxury. Yes, it’s beautiful.

KWEI-ARMAH: Right? It’s an incredible luxury. And the idea then that once you put a body, a singular body, in the space that it changes. Not a black box, but a space of innate possibility, a space of innate humanity and innate energy. Literally, I’ve gone into spaces that you, David, have designed and I go, “Oh, I feel David in here.” I feel the power of your intellect and of your spirit in the very shape of a room, in the length and the breadth. So the space is performative, but it’s what the spirit does in that space. In Changing Destiny, for instance, which was a play that had some issues but that I’m very proud of, David inverting the pyramid down to a certain spot in the center of the stage gave it an energy that demanded that everything happened around it. It was like a laser going off, and the energy would bounce off that. When design says to you, “Here is a focal point, now dance.” The space tells me I’m at home. And the human body, or bodies, become the conduit to explore that spirit.

ADJAYE: That’s really fun to hear, actually. I really enjoyed that. Space in my business is the game. Architecture is really just describing the outer rim of space. Architecture is about the articulation of voids all day long and the way in which voids make people feel at ease with their environment and allows people to articulate other aspects of their sense, their living, in the construction and confines. So I’m deeply obsessed with voids. And voids only come into being on this planet when form defines it. We’ve been evolving for a long time. So I’m fascinated with how, 10,000 years ago, we started defining voids in a very specific way. Rather than finding places and inhabiting them, we started constructing. So when I’m working now, in the 21st century, I’m very conscious of what I’m trying to do in relation to that history. It’s not in an academic sense, but in the sense that I believe there are systemic problems in that evolution, because I think the power to make voids is also a power to control and constrict and, even more powerfully, to subconsciously manipulate. I am deeply concerned about what I call the “performance of a space,” and that’s not the function, but what the space’s deep agenda is and how it’s doing it.

KWEI-ARMAH: I love that, David. As always, I feel like I’m at a lecture that I paid a lot of money for and I’m getting my value. I’ve got to think about that some more. So, of course, I got the script for The Collaboration, I don’t know, 18 months ago. And it wasn’t until I was literally going into rehearsal that I heard about your exhibition. I was like, “Oh, please god, open before I open so I can go soak in some David.” What was interesting when I came to see the exhibition after our run at the Young Vic was the agenda. The major reason I took on this show was to help be a part of the repositioning of Basquiat out of the white gaze and into, I don’t want to say the “black gaze,” but that’s what we said. 

ADJAYE: His own gaze.

KWEI-ARMAH: Just his own, right.

ADJAYE: Black is just default.

KWEI-ARMAH: Absolutely. And I’m really interested in how you got there and why you got there and why we got there, almost working simultaneously.

ADJAYE: And I loved that. For me, it was so beautiful to find out that you were doing The Collaboration and I rushed to see it. It was beautiful to see what felt like a zeitgeist that we were all tapping into, it felt like there’d been a very extreme positioning of a black male artist that’s so convenient to a certain genre. This incredible artist who is, really, probably the greatest artist of the late-20th century.

KWEI-ARMAH: Hands down.

ADJAYE: He’s literally foundational to how artists have worked. They’ve used everything by him. So he’s classical, but he’s still being talked about as a kind of weird side-card. And so, for me, the show was all about showing the humanity of Basquiat and the incredible universality of his intellect and his spirit and that he is a powerful totem, an icon of our civilization and how our civilization is evolving. It’s literally that profound for me, what he does. He’s like Miles Davis. And Basquiat got this “urban kid” bullshit thrown at him, which was just useful. It’s a residue of the racism of late 20th-century America. So now, how do you unpack that and bring that humanity? We question every mode of presentation of his work and reverse it.

KWEI-ARMAH: I loved that. I loved that there wasn’t a white wall in sight.

ADJAYE: He had a white studio, but I was insistent. So the consensus capitulated that we could do a stain on the timber. So it wasn’t white, but it was an off-white. There was this idea that we were not recreating, we were actually remembering. Memory is not so hard and fast. It’s not about facts. It’s about associations and relationships.

KWEI-ARMAH: Totally. And for me, one of my big passions is how we reframe not for the now, but for tomorrow.

ADJAYE: Exactly.

KWEI-ARMAH: Because black artists in particular become archetypes. And they’re served by those archetypes, too. So the next generation goes, “I can be the frivolous,” I can be the person whose genius is only inspiration, but is not intellectually or spiritually engaged with. And that’s how Basquiat had been kind of characterized. When actually, when you look at the work, and you understand as much as one can the influences behind it, this is an intellectual giant in his early twenties.

ADJAYE: In his early twenties!

KWEI-ARMAH: Like, literally challenging the status quo’s understanding of intelligence. So I felt really affirmed when I came to the exhibition and was just like, “Me too”. That’s what I’m in it for. But also, I was very fascinated by Andy. I’m at that age that Andy was when they were doing the collaboration.


KWEI-ARMAH: And David, I don’t know about you, because you still look it, but in my heart I’m still about 33. I’m still “emerging.” I’m still that guy that wishes to fight the status quo and blah blah blah. And then there’s a moment when you cross over and you go, “Oh no, I’m the status quo, I’m the establishment” and the young need to fight against me to some degree to define themselves. And I found that really interesting in terms of their collaboration. How Andy, as the establishment figure at the time, negotiates the energy of the young upstart. The upstart was going to say, “I’m going to rip down what you do and I’m going to show you a different way of construction and I’m going to do it in my ancestral lens.” But I’m very sympathetic to Andy being the age that I am now, and the young Turks going, “You’re full of shit and I’m going to take you down.” How do you negotiate with that?

ADJAYE: Oh, I am now at that stage also, where I have a whole generation of young kids who are pretenders to the throne. And it’s beautiful to watch. What’s really beautiful about this age is that you see exactly the struggle that the youth are going through. The way in which you wrote for Andy really kind of brings that out. You realize that Andy is in awe, but is also kind of loving what I call this “succession.”

KWEI-ARMAH: I think you’re absolutely right. The thrill when you find someone that has that combination of beautiful talent and wisdom.

ADJAYE: Yeah, it’s beautiful.

KWEI-ARMAH: As an artist, as a functioning artist, someone took a chance on every one of us. Someone believed in us when others didn’t. I don’t know how you negotiate with it, but I want to hold some of them in my arms and go, “I know you want to take everything down, but be careful how you burn, be careful what you burn.” I don’t care if it’s me. But in nearly every revolution, the first wave dies very soon after. The new generation will see things in a way you will just not, but also applying your wisdom and saying, “I understand your righteous rage.”

ADJAYE: It’s fascinating to watch but not to interfere. I just realized that it’s almost like those Brazilians who can bend balls around people into the goal. You just don’t know how the information is hitting home and what it’s doing. What I realize more and more about the way in which I see things and say things to people is that the way in which I understand the words that I’m using has a kind of weight that I can see. So I deliver the words, but I can’t deliver the weight of the information that actually makes the words make sense. Words have this terrible ability to deflect or deform, depending on the ability of the person who is receiving the information. So that has really messed with my head so much that it’s actually started to make me be very, very careful about when one says anything, what one says and how one says it within these encounters. 

KWEI-ARMAH: I think I learned that, but I make the mistake over and over again. When I first became an artistic director [at Center Stage in Baltimore]. I was there as a playwright before and I remember going up to the stage hand and saying, “How many times do you sweep the stage?” And he answered, “Oh, three times a week.” I went “Great.” And when I came back as an artistic director I said to the same stage hand, “Hey, how many times do you sweep the stage a week?” He went and got a broom and started sweeping the stage. Same person, same words.

ADJAYE: There you go.

KWEI-ARMAH: I think we had this conversation in South Africa just before the lockdown. You were talking about what you were doing in Accra [Adjaye Associates designed the National Cathedral of Ghana in Accra] and about how to rethink a city. And that stayed with me, how one rethinks a city, because it’s a very heady thing. But also spiritually, how one rethinks a city, how one thinks about what the needs and the desires are of people who are not yet born, who will be utilizing the thing that you create. Talk to me a little bit about how you future-proof, how you think about the future. And I’ll caveat that by saying that’s all we do in theater. All we do is take an ancient art form make it live into tomorrow. How do we make it serve tomorrow’s audience?

ADJAYE: It sounds very grand when you say it like that, but yeah. There’s the thing itself of working through certain problems within the city, but there is this idea of the vision. And who’s to say the vision is correct? When one is doing that, what’s been invested is the capability of the person to imagine at the scale of the city. Not in terms of skill, but in terms of one’s ability to see. My ability to shift through these things is because I have no trauma about scale.


ADJAYE: People say, “That’s such a big building, are you traumatized?” No, no, no. I have no trauma about scale. My biggest struggle is vision.


ADJAYE: Once I have a view about it, scale doesn’t matter to me. In the end, what happens is that if you are tapping into a zeitgeist that is projecting a potential future, there’s something that is very interconnected about us as human beings. And I am so fascinated by that. It’s really about trusting that “Yes, I’m imagining this thing, but I’m just channeling what is actually a collective network, a kind of view about what something else should be.” But I am instrumentalized in a way that I can actually make it visual, I can actually bring it into form. It’s something that surprises me every time I do it.

KWEI-ARMAH: I love the way you framed that, “I don’t have the trauma of scale.” It reminded me of when I got asked to direct the opening ceremony at the World Festival of Black Arts and Culture in Senegal, right? And I said, “Tell me what you want.” And they went, “Well, we want a cast of about 500 and we are going to put it in the stadium.” And I went, “Great.” Before that, the largest thing I’d directed was five actors on the stage. But what gave me the confidence—no, confidence sounds too Trumpy. But it was only scale, right? The space demands something of me. And if I’ve got five actors on the stage, I know how to make sure every person is seen. So all I’m doing is amplifying that with 500 in a stadium. That’s why I love what you’ve just said. I did not have the trauma of scale. I’m a profound believer, particularly as an artistic director, that one is forever trying to chase the zeitgeist. And then there’s a moment when you go, “I can’t chase the zeitgeist. I simply have to be in enough rooms, listening to enough people who I love and whose minds I love, to absorb what the culture is telling me.” And then try to reproduce not where it is, but where it might want to be.

ADJAYE: That is all we can do. And that’s when you become the zeitgeist. [Laughs] There is a difference between wanting to know what’s on trend and wanting to know what’s deeper than that. So I’m talking about that other thing, the thing that is deeper and quieter and harder to hear.


ADJAYE: I’m always interested in what I call the water underneath the body. So when I’m in a conversation or I’m in a space with people that I really adore and admire, I’m not even listening sometimes to their words. I’m listening to the energy of what they’re trying to impart. And that is what’s really fundamental.

KWEI-ARMAH: That’s another note I’ve just taken by the way. “What is the water?” It’s very true, right? Because people say you can’t speak and listen at the same time. And it’s actually not true. Sometimes I speak to listen.


KWEI-ARMAH: Because if you look at another human being, and we all respond at a cellular level, we respond and someone says something to you and before it’s even got to your mouth, there is a reaction. And sometimes that reaction just shows bits of emotion and you get to see what they’re actually thinking, not what they’ve just said. My mother used to say to me, “Sometimes, Kwame, you can win the silence, but it doesn’t mean you’ve won the argument”.

ADJAYE: Yes, yes. It’s a very different thing.

KWEI-ARMAH: I’m very fascinated by when a group of people feel silenced, that is when the culture is at its most dangerous. And we can look at that with the far-right, from MAGA through to the thing that was trying to happen in Germany the other day.

ADJAYE: And the guy still thinks he runs it!

KWEI-ARMAH: Exactly. But the question is, who was listening? Who was listening hard enough when they were complaining? Or did we silence them? And whenever I go to your art, you are never silent. You are not loud, you are not dominant. But you are never silent. Your spirit has endowed the space so that I can articulate something. And that’s why I’m so excited for Accra because I’m a bit like, “Yo, I want to be part of what your work will catalyze for me as an older man and for the young and for those who will live through it in the future.” So David, thank you for being a beautiful supporter and a friend, but most importantly a fucking badass artist.

ADJAYE: Likewise. Much love.