For his first full season as Center Stage artistic director, Kwame Kwei-Armah focused on works that could spark conversation about a variety of heady issues. Midway through that season, he has unveiled a very different theme for the next one.
"If this season is cerebral, with the join-the-conversation message, [2013-2014] is one of spirit and joy and fun, I'm hoping," Kwei-Armah said. "I have been traveling a lot and looking at productions across the country. I have seen audiences react to several of these plays, which gives me the security to present them."
Kwei-Armah, who is currently directing the world premiere of Dominique Morisseau's "Detroit '67" at the Public Theater in New York, said he has tried to choose works that would appeal to Center Stage patrons.
"I learned this last 18 months to listen to what the audience wants," he said. "For those who asked, 'Where's our musical this season?' I'm going to hit them with two next season. For those who said, 'Where are our classics?' we've got Shakespeare."
Here's the 2013-2014 rundown:
•"Animal Crackers," by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind (book), Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby (music and lyrics), Sept. 4 to Oct. 13.
The fun side of things will be front and center when the season launches in September with this 1928 Marx Brothers musical comedy. The typically zany concoction, which involves stolen art on a high-society estate, gave Groucho one of his most memorable roles, Captain Spaulding.
"I saw a production of 'Animal Crackers' at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last year, and it was such a crowd-pleaser," Kwei-Armah said. "It's a comedy with music that spoke to the haves and the have-nots. It felt right, zeitgeist-wise, for next season. And Bruce Nelson as Groucho is going to be something to savor."
Nelson, who starred in this season's production of "The Completely Fictional — Utterly True — Final Strange Tale of Edgar Allan Poe," is the only casting choice ready to be announced.
•"Dance of the Holy Ghosts: A Play on Memory," by Marcus Gardley, Oct. 9 to Nov. 17.
Unveiled by the Yale Repertory Theater in 2006, this drama focuses on an elderly blues musician who prefers memories of the past but is thrust into the present by the visit of an estranged grandson and a family funeral.
"I want to try to find African-American writers who are filling the void that August Wilson left," Kwei-Armah said. "Marcus is one of them. He is a brilliant writer, in my opinion. The play's soul and poetry struck right at the center of my spirit."
•"A Civil War Christmas," by Paula Vogel, Nov. 19 to Dec. 22.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author's play with music, which earned raves when it opened at the New York Theater Workshop in December, is set on Christmas Eve 1864. It interweaves stories of President Lincoln; Mary Todd Lincoln and her African-American seamstress, the former slave Elizabeth Keckley; Generals Grant and Lee; and several other real and fictional figures.
"I saw it in New York and thought it was wonderful, moving and feel-good," Kwei-Armah said. "It is filled with music. We have not been part of the holiday season thing here, and felt we should be competitive. This is a good first stab at that."
•"Stones in His Pockets," by Marie Jones, Jan. 15 to Feb. 23, 2014.
Premiered in Dublin in 1996, this dramedy, which requires two actors to perform multiple roles, tells of an Irish town caught up in the arrival of a Hollywood film crew.
"This is what theater is about — not just good stories, but seeing great acting," Kwei-Armah said. "It's a tour de force for two actors to play that many characters. The piece also has poignancy. I've asked Derek Goldman, who directed 'Brothers Size' so brilliantly at Everyman last season, to direct."
•"Twelfth Night," by William Shakespeare, March 5 to April 6, 2014.
This comic tale of twins, shipwreck and mistaken identity adds to the fun quotient.
"And it speaks to our dedication to do Shakespeare at least every other year," he said.
•"The Liquid Plain," by Naomi Wallace, April 16 to May 25, 2014.
The work, which earned Wallace the 2012 Horton Foote Prize for Promising New American Play Author, is a drama centering on two runaway slaves in late-1700s Rhode Island and their attempt to regain freedom.
"It's an epic, a deep, poetic, serious work, the kind that actors like to get their heads lost in," said Kwei-Armah, who will direct the world premiere of "The Liquid Plain" at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this summer.
•"Wild With Happy," by Colman Domingo, May 28 to June 29, 2014.
A hit last fall when it debuted at New York's Public Theater, this offbeat comedy finds a gay man taking his mother's ashes on what is supposed to be a cathartic trip to Disney World.
"I wanted something perfect to end a season of joy, and this play is just joyous," said Kwei-Armah, who, along with several Center Stage staff and board members, attended the New York production. "Another reason I want to do this work is that Center Stage hasn't spoken to its gay audience — not that this is just a gay play; it's a universal play. I want people to know that everyone's stories will at some point be in our gaze."
For more information, call 410-332-0033 or go to centerstage.org.