Clapton café that broke barriers for black writers

Elmina: café that was the fictional locale for Elmina's Kitchen by Kwame Kwei-Armah 221115 © DavidAltheer [at]
Kwame Kwei-Armah, Artistic Director of Center Stage
American hurrah: Kwei-Armah is an artistic director in Baltimore

* Update autumn 2018: Kwame Kwei-Armah is lured back to London when he is appointed artistic director of the Young Vic


AS A NONDESCRIPT eaterie, the fast-fooder above takes some beating. Yet the Clapton takeaway has a place in the artisticj history of London.

In a former incarnation as Granny’s Kitchen, the caff in Downs Road, Clapton E5 8DA, was the inspiration for one of English theatre’s most stimulating playwrights, Kwame Kwei-Armah, to write a play that had door-battering results for black writers in England. And on white writers.

No plaque marks the site and probably none ever will, which is a pity because nobody in nearby shops questioned by Loving Dalston had even heard of the drama, Elmina’s Kitchen, let alone knew of the local link.

Contrast that with the huge publicity generated when a property developer wants to demolish a pub in which some ageing pop singer once played a few of the three chords he knew.

Elmina’s Kitchen won an Evening Standard award in 2003 and was given a rollicking production by the BBC. The play made its mark at the South Bank of London and in 2005 it was staged in the West End. It has since been performed in the US.

Soapster: Kwei-Armah in Casualty (BBC pic)
Soapster: Kwei-Armah in Casualty

The play is set in Hackney, around what the media at the time termed “Murder Mile”, an area then blighted by violent and reckless criminals. It tells of a man’s daily battle to make an honest living and to provide a stable life for a troublesome son.

Kwei-Armah decided he had to write the play after he’d seen a car crash in which two young black men had died of gun wounds. It happened not far from the café.

He felt he had to challenge the apathy that allowed such horrors and, with Granny’s Kitchen and a West Country caff as source material for the fictional West Indian takeaway, he wrote Elmina’s Kitchen, subsequently described by critics as a pessimistic and angry work. It is also rich in humour.

Kwei-Armah, who played a paramedic in early episodes of BBC1 hospital soap Casualty, now works in Baltimore, Maryland, as artistic director of the Center Stage Theatre, where he is also busy writing.

David Altheer 300616

* Backstory: How Loving Dalston raised threat to CLR James name; Black is bountiful; Harlem Renaissance Man; Hackney drops black hero

Main pic © DavidAltheer [at], for sale for reproduction. TV pic from BBC

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