The Things We Did, The People We Saw, And What They Had To Say…
It all looked something like this…
Having come into existence in 1973 for the purpose of developing African American theatre and generating African American audiences, I suspect that the “Audience Development Committee,” AUDELCO, knows a little something about excellence in the arts. Regardless of that, I have been focused solely on evolving the performance life of American Moor, the play. The result of that focus has been a growing performance history, and a continuing schedule of engagements for the piece with the intention of returning it to Manhattan. But there hasn’t been any time or attention given to contemplating its “excellence.” In fact, that is always an endeavor better off left to others. And so, no nomination by the AUDELCO committee was expected. And the idea of actually being honored with an award was way off the radar. But here we were, among greats of black American theatre, who came out to Symphony Space on November 16th to take part in the 43rd Annual AUDELCO Award ceremony.I haven’t a great deal to say about this night, other than my sense of gratitude that people have noticed this work…
…and to list it here as just another moment in the history of the life of this play. It’s not good to dwell on accolades, especially when there is still so much more work to be done in continuing the discussion, perhaps not of the play itself, although I hope that happens too, but of the issues that the play raises.
There is MOOR to this story…
Stay tuned, or you might miss something wonderful.
In Print, eBook, and Downloadable Audio
These short pieces were a long time in coming. Many of them were around three laptops ago… But now they’re here, and that’s about all I’ve got to say about them… Except perhaps that, over the many years that I’ve picked them apart, put them back together, slapped them around, and let them sit, they were fun to write. Perhaps they’ll be fun to read as well. Perhaps you’ll have a look, or a listen… and let me know.
Audio Excerpt from the story, God’s Children
In the business, they’re called “one-offs.” It means you’re gonna do the show once… no next night… no re-do… If you’re lucky, you get to come into the space the day before and set things up with some competent professionals, focus lights, configure speakers for sound… But one way or the other, come the evening of performance, you’re going to go out there and do a show. Don’t trip over the furniture, and you’ll be alright. It may not be your best performance. How could it be, when half of your attention is on whether or not the voiced over sound of the second character is going to play on cue? Regardless, people asked to be shown this play. And, for all the downside to one-night-only road shows, honoring the growing interest in this work is far more important. Besides, American Moor has no furniture…
The Student Entertainment Council of Rider University hosted this evening’s event. As such, I don’t know whether they reached out to the theatre, English, and diversity departments specifically, or just billed the evening as a general entertainment to anyone who might be interested. I mention these three departments above, because to date, while engaging with universities, they have been the areas of discipline most immediately interested in what American Moor is.
In any case, there was a sizable house. The event was free to the public, and so there were quite a few attendees from off-campus as well.
I never know how this thing is received in a one-off… I am far too distracted to be that in-touch with the audience’s energy. And it was the first collegiate audience since the very first public performance of the play at Westchester Community College back in November of 2013. The feedback has been positive, and, as is often the case, I got some immediate post-performance responses from people who I would have never thought would be in the room. This is all good. The play continues to surprise me.
As per usual, we did a post-performance discussion facilitated by the assistant director of campus activities, Nicholas Barbati. It was a small but diverse group that stayed behind to take part. And it’s the unusual make-up of these groups that always gets me. They range widely in age, ethnicity, and gender. And while I was busy wondering if I gave a credible performance, I end up being reminded that the text itself is really doing most of the work. They get it, and perhaps I need to take it easier on myself, and thus everyone else.
I’ve been saying that the show needs a venue all its own for a few months… To settle into a rehearsal process replete with all the bells and whistles, all the production elements that will allow us to find whatever it is in this piece that we haven’t found yet. I’m not sure, therefore, how this college circuit one-off thing will work. But I can’t deny that connecting with the young men and women on their home turf is a thrill unto itself… It’s just so nerve-racking as a performer…
It wasn’t a Shakespeare crowd, by and large… Most of the classical references registered no energy of recognition. Even the most common of them, like Juliet’s “Gallop apace” left the room silent. Of course, it could have been my shitty performance, no doubt. But I just think that the students today, unless English is their discipline, are not nearly as read in Shakespeare as I was at their age… Or was I, even?? Who can remember? And is that a problem? How much better to see theatre, any theatre than to read it…
In this case, it really didn’t seem to matter, and this is the more relevant point. Even though Shakespeare, his plays, and the playing of them is a predominant theme that is laced throughout American Moor, it is becoming more and more obvious that one need not be versed in any of it in order to be impacted by this work. There seem to be myriad themes and ideas that recur in the arc of the play such that anyone with a reasonably open mind will, if he/she just listens, find something with which they identify. I can’t lie and say that I planned it all that way. But how remarkable, and for me delightful, to watch audience members sound off in unpredictable ways because they were struck by some aspect of the character’s journey that had occurred to no one else!
As I began this post, I was saying that the interaction with the intellectually acute youth trumps my discomfort at the rough-shod vicissitudes of theatre on the fly. Sometimes, it may not trump it by much. But this experience at Rider, I think, was extraordinary, giving me to understand that I may just need to get used to take the play to where the people are.by
I am very late getting started here. At the time of this posting it will have already been seven weeks since the close of the five-week run in the nation’s capitol. The production of American Moor at the Anacostia Playhouse in Anacostia, Washington D.C. was no easy task. But the engagement and responses of the audiences that attended were well worth the effort. We stirred many energies in and around Washington, and it has been a full-time job since then to navigate them all, and to continue to nourish the performance life of this still evolving work of theatre.
The production in Anacostia was different than any of the other productions of the play that we had done to date. The black box theatre was configured for audience on three sides. I was in amongst them from the beginning of the play until the end, which created an energy and a level of intimacy that was completely new to me in this particular work. (My apologies to any audience member who got spit on, cried on, sweated on, or bled on. I’m sure there were many…)
In all other venues thus far the audiences have been gathered in front of me. My movement about the playing space for this latest production was redirected towards including those on the left and right, and this talking to various people from sometimes no more than two feet away opened up some channels of discovery. Ultimately, American Moor will need to play to houses of 300 and 400 people, but I do think that it is important not to lose the ability to get close to them, and to allow them to feel like they are on this difficult journey as well, because they are…
A new director on this production altered the play in other ways as well. Actually, I should say, that what was becoming standard practice in performance was interrupted and rethought, and this is always a good thing if it’s not done for its own sake, but rather to make sure that there is a real reason for each moment, and each beat in the arc of the play. Craig Wallace, a highly respected actor in the D.C. theatre community lent himself to this remounting of American Moor with thought and focus and patience, and the work is better for it.
The Anacostia Playhouse is in Anacostia, a neighborhood east of the Anacostia River that has been a predominantly African-American community since the early 1960’s. Like many African-American communities throughout the country it is underfunded and underserved, and its residents are generally low-income. However, Anacostia is spoken of as an “emerging” community, which would suggest it is evolving, and inventing itself anew. This is exciting, though there can be a very fine like to walk between the re-invigoration driven by black empowerment, and the snowball gentrification that has run rampant through the greater District of Columbia. While much of the theatre that The Playhouse presents strives to be relevant to the life and times of the community, and certainly American Moor was this, it remains difficult to get the community into the theatre in large numbers short of giving the tickets away. It is also difficult to get the greater D.C. community to come across the Anacostia River and into “the hood.” So, therein lie a number of problems. The houses for performances of “Moor” were small for the first three weeks while word of mouth was spread. But even though small in number, the audiences were completely engrossed in the work, and effusive with their comments. By the fourth and fifth week, the houses had begun to fill, and we were playing to overflow crowds when we closed on the 17th of August. And this is not unique to them. Such is the dilemma of small, underfunded American theaters everywhere.
The DC engagement of American Moor offered up a number of opportunities. The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts was hosting its annual directing intensive for college directing students as part of their American College Theatre Festival. I was invited to speak to the students about the dynamic between actor and director, and how we can perhaps more effectively speak to one another in the audition and rehearsal process, something that the play treats on heavily. Having that conversation with people who truly want to engage, who ask questions, and listen intently to responses, and who will be making the next generation of theatre that might just lift us out of our entrenched entertainment paradigms and compel us to think and to grow was the highlight of my two months in The District.
We had eight post-show discussions over the five-week run. They made for very late evenings, because we never wanted to let the discussion end, and people were always moved to speak. The most validating of these for me were the two that we got to do with noted scholars, Michael Witmore, the director of The Folger Shakespeare Library, and Ayanna Thompson, a professor of English at George Washington University. Professor Thompson has written extensively on people of color in Shakespeare. And Mr. Witmore is presiding over the largest collection of Renaissance literature in the world. Their approval of the work, and their agreeing to take part in the discussions it engendered has been a hugely encouraging moment in the performance life of this piece.
The discussions were facilitated by a local teaching artist, Thembi Duncan. She was also responsible for bringing out a large portion of the African American performing arts community of DC. Sooner or later, this custom we have developed of staying long after the performance to assure that the conversation continues will need to stop. American Moor will soon need a venue that can give it a definitive polish only gotten with an abundance of resources. It needs that time and space. Until then, however, given the intimacy of these small venues, it only makes sense to stay and engage that audience, as it feels like they are already in my living room.
It is never a simple endeavor for a small theatre to pick up and run with a project like Moor. It’s a brave choice because it does not come with the promise of being easy in any way. In fact, the easiest way to avoid controversy would be to run like hell in the other direction. It seeks to make people uncomfortable, to holler truths that the public is most often desperately attempting to ignore, and that’s no way to sell tickets. The Anacostia Playhouse certainly did me a service by getting behind the project. I don’t believe that we have yet felt all the positive fallout to result from the energies we’ve stirred.by
This April into May has been two months of revelation. Making the work, as arduous as it can be in so many ways, is always a whole lot more fun that looking for the work. This work grew and attention grew for it. It showed me peoples capacity to listen and consider with expansive minds and hearts. It also showed me the poster children for the very argument of the play, those that see first, identify what they think they are seeing, then don’t here or consider another thing after that, other than what is defined by what they think they saw. I had one remarkable reviewer write, “…Enter Cobb, a large black man, anxiously awaiting the call of the casting assistant as he proceeds to unapologetically disturb the entire waiting room with his nervous behavior…” I sit and wander about for fifteen minutes at the top of the show as the audience enters in a small area upstage where three chairs are illuminated to give the impression of a waiting area. There is no one in the space but me… What did he see? If he and a were equivalently cop and black man waiting anxiously for a bus, would he have said, “He looked suspicious.”
”He did? Why?”
”Well, he was behaving erratically…”
”Really? How so?”
”Well, he was standing up and sitting back down a lot.”
”Was there anyone else there waiting?”
”No… But I assumed that there would be…”
”But there was no one there at the time… So what was the problem?”
”He was behaving nervously…”
”Perhaps he was nervous. Is that a crime?”
”Do you mean, he looked like he might be dangerous in some way, because he was black, and moving, and engaged in some sort of mental process… and alive?”
”Well, no… I don’t mean that at all…”
”Oh… Well, what do you mean?”
”I mean he looked suspicious…”
Such critical voices were in the minority over the run of the show. I would like to believe that there are fewer and fewer of them as it gets later into the 21st century, but I think the more accurate assessment is that fewer of them saw any reason to attend a play about race in America in the first place… I could be wrong about this. I hope I am. Time will reveal as we continue on. But it was an extraordinary moment, his reactions to the play. One among many extraordinary moments at The Wild Project during the run of “American Moor.”
The final dress rehearsal was strong. The four or five people sitting in the house were moved… at least that’s what they told me… When you are mounting a show, even a “one-man” show on a small budget, so much time and energy goes into doing all sorts of things besides acting, and I am left never know what’s going to be there when the time comes to hit the stage. Judging from the reaction, I guess something was there… ”American Moor” is a theatre piece fraught with intense emotion. It is great to hit all the notes when you only have to do it once. To know that, after the final dress, you have to get up and out and do it several more times can be quite daunting. But for the moment, I was happy.
Well, whatever was there at the dress rehearsal had, at least to some extent, taken the night off. I’ll never know what that is… Just bad acting skills, maybe, but I could not access that same deep-seated well of emotion that, on other nights, just wells up for me in this piece. I mean it was there. It’s all through the play, that age-old emotion; that’s what the play is about. But somewhere around page fifteen or so of the thirty-two pages it just began to feel like there was still a long way to go to the end. The Wild Project is an eighty-nine seat house, and if the audience were seated any closer they would be on-stage. In addition, the set has a white floor and white rear wall. This was the first time that we had tried anything like this. Previously, we have always performed in a completely blackened space. Necessity required that we do it this way, and I have to say that I think it added something to the metaphor — the black man in the entirely white space… However, when it is lit, all the light reflects into the house illuminating the audience as well. If someone in that intimate little house scratches their nose, I can see them. Nose-scratching, like coughing, is a sure sign that the audience is not focused on what you are doing on-stage… Alright, that’s not true, but again, alone on-stage, and not feeling one hundred percent in the work, there is this snowball effect that happens where everything that you’re experiencing serves as another distraction that pulls your further and further out of where you’re supposed to be, and ultimately you find yourself just struggling to find the end, when you will be mercifully allowed to exit the stage. I guess it’s a thing about how, having done, or let be done all of this hype about how wonderful a piece of theatre it is you have made, then standing out there and realizing, or at least feeling as though you are not delivering that to this house full of people who have bought your self-aggrandizing pitch, and bought a ticket. And then what? It ends up being completely a projection, of course. You are feeling like it not getting across; that its boring, or clunky, or some other thing that is not good. And so you put that on the guy who just shifted in his seat, thinking, “He hates me,” while, in fact, he’s totally enthralled and hanging on your every word…
Opening night reception, and festivities tell this story. The audience effuses gratitude and praise. Unless they are all lying through their teeth, I am left with the impression that they were there all along, thought for thought, word for word, and deeply affected by what those words conjured within them. In the wake of such responses after such opening nights, I am compelled to realize that the play is the play. I may be feeling any number of things on-stage during any given performance that have nothing to do with the text, or the truth, but the words seem to put something important and impactful across with or without my help. I hadn’t left the building. I was there. But there are performances when moments in the arc of the play shake me to my very core, and strike me as though some force is speaking through me for the first time. When I don’t feel those, it doesn’t mean that the power of the piece has fled. It means, perhaps that I’m carrying it, instead of it carrying me, but either way, it is being conveyed.
It never means that I am not being an adequate vehicle for the conveyance of this particular poetry.
This was a long day, with a 2pm matinee performance for a small house, meant specifically for the press. But it was a strong show, as was the second on that evening, which was followed by a post-show discussion facilitated by the Reverend Jacqueline Lewis of the Middle Collegiate Church. Reverend Lewis oversees a 900+ poly-ethnic, non-denominational congregation in the East Village. Her post-show attempted to reflect on the work, and people’s reactions to it, from the place of gaining a spiritual awareness, the lack of which is at the root of our communication gap with regard to racial insensitivity in our culture. She raised an interesting point in emphasizing our common humanity, that we might be here in this place and time with white American culture the unheard, and unseen, and black culture wholly unaware and insensitive to it if ancient world events had unfolded differently, but that the dilemma of how to communicate and transcend it would be the same, because the nature of the human animal would be the same, and that it is only a spiritual maturation that will change that, nothing else… That’s what I took away from the evening, in any case…
Another strong show, I thought, to a smallish house. I am particularly aware of the size of the houses because I can see every seat. The white stage and rear wall with stage lights shining on them illuminate the entire theatre of 89 seats. As meager as the mid-week audience was, however, they seemed rapt, and fully engaged with the process unfolding on-stage.
The Wild Project is about as beautiful a venue as any 99-seat New York City black box theatre for hire as any that I’ve ever seen. I suppose you couldn’t have such a space and maintain it on the income of low-budget theatre if it were located uptown where more people might be apt to come. I’ve seen a few of the tiny, for-hire venues uptown, and to a one they’re ratty little dives that no one would like to spend any more time in then they had to. There are nicer ones over on Theatre Row, but, of course, you pay for every inch closer to Broadway… Down on 3rd Street and Avenue B on a Thursday night, I’m happy for my house of 26 as long as they’re happy with me.
The largest audience since opening… It was a strong performance. People who have seen multiple performances seem to think the piece has arrived. I think that, with 32 pages of words, no matter what one does to learn them, drill them, rehearse them, they are only going to be in you, truly in you when they are truly in you. And that ends up being a matter of something that is neither wholly mental of physical. There is no rushing the process. It’s like the gestation and development of anything else, from babies, to bottles of wine. It becomes more and more natural in performance every time I do the piece before an audience, but there are still, even after two years, times in the middle of the arc of 32 pages where I’m supposed to be up there being this guy, but I’m really busy thinking, “What the fuck am I supposed to say here? How did that next line go?” No one seems to notice. I’m happy for that. But there is still a ways to go until it has “arrived.”
This was the largest house since opening night. It is the night after night playing of the piece with the audience numbers and energies changing that begin to solidify the words, less and less in my head, and more and more in my body. I am beginning to do the role now, and not perform it. It’s not as though I still can’t tend to wander a bit around page 25 of the 32 page text… It’s a lot of words to infuse with that level of emotion every night, which begs a bigger question… What do you want to do with this play? How many times can you continue to crank out fully actualized performances of this work, inasmuch as it takes all that you’ve got? I don’t have the answer to this question yet, but the reactions to the work by the diverse and wholly engaged audiences are certainly validating enough to make me want to do it at least a while longer. It is a play that another actor could certainly do… I suspect that publication as a licensable work would be the next logical step…
This was the second post-show discussion performance. This evening was moderated by Dr. Akil Khalfani, director of the Africana Institute, and professor of sociology at Essex County College. His discussion as compared to Reverend Lewis’ at the beginning of the week, took on a more scholarly bent, as one would expect. As a professor of sociology, he was interested mostly in the idea of “blackness” as a stigma, and by what process we can begin to de-stigmatize the term, and the people the term attempts to define. I think, however, that we return to Reverend Lewis when we understand that, to de-stigmatize a people requires that shift in spiritual awareness that allows us to up-level as a human species. I’m not sure this is possible, but I don’t suppose I would have written the play if I didn’t hold out hope.
It was an extraordinary week. I grew. The play grew. We all left eager to see what the next performance week would bring.
Rough, rough, rough… A week off will do that, particularly without any sort of a brush-up rehearsal. Again, I think the impact of the play itself tends to mask for the audience any difficulties I may be having personally on-stage. Still, it’s important that I stay honest about it. Not much else to report about this evening. First days back can tend to look like this. I guess there are times when one can be grateful for a small house…
This evening’s house was full. There was a high school group from Brooklyn, and the moderator of the evening’s post-show discussion was the professor and author, Daniel Black, who also brought a contingent of students from CCNY.
The high school kids left after the curtain call, so I was never able to get any feedback from them, or any sense of how they had experienced the play, which is a drag, as I was looking forward to it… However Daniel’s group stayed, and this coterie of college-aged black men had no shortage of positive input, creating a truly valuable discourse.
Dr. Black has written extensively in the first four of his seven novels of life and circumstance in the pre-civil rights South. I tend to think that there is very little difference between what creates our current racial divides, and what created them before 1960, and that what gave rise to all of it is as old as the slave trade itself. I was sure that Dr. Black would see the same issues at work in my play as those he explores in his books, and I thought therefore that he would be a strong choice to facilitate one of these discussions. He did not disappoint.
A midweek slump in attendance. There it is again… It’s just hard to get people downtown to these little NY theatres, no matter what’s going on, unless you’re boasting some sort of celebrity name, or something like that. They come on the weekends, however, as the numbers for the rest of the run attested. As for the performance… I think it was just fine. A little bit more honest, a little bit more natural every day…
This was the day that Bobby Razak and crew came to record footage of the production, the performance, the theatre, and the New York environment for the film that he is making about the making of this play. We started early. We needed a full day to capture all the essence and energy of the NYC debut of “American Moor.” Interviews with the theatre’s artistic directors were conducted. There was clearly a different energy all around then when we were doing the same at Luna Stage in NJ earlier in the year. New York is different than everything… Any documentary made with this play as the focus would not have been complete without coverage of this element of its evolution.
It was a nearly full house this evening as well, with an impromptu post-show discussion.
By this point, the show is running smoothly… I, as per usual, tend to panic slightly in the last third of the piece as I’m trying to bring it home, but also as per usual no one seems too much notice my struggles. And again, I can only assume this is more testament to the power of the play itself, and not so much to me.
The last of the scheduled post-show discussion days, moderated by Kevin E. Taylor, a Newark author, minister, impresario. He too brought a following to the theatre this night, but the audience, in general, was quite diverse, and eager to speak back at the end of the evening.
These post-show discussions are always a bit frustrating, especially with a play like “American Moor” that demands that so many questions be asked and answered in order to do what the play begs, which is to reach an understanding via communication. There is never enough time in the post-performance setting to pursue any line of dialogue to satisfactory conclusion. Regardless, the things that most needed to get said did get said. Points of connection and the expression of new awareness by people across the ethnic and gender spectrum (yes, there is now a gender spectrum) suggested that all we are doing is right.
Mother’s Day was our final performance at The Wild Project. It was a sold out matinee. I was exhausted from doing the show the evening before and getting very little sleep, then jumping into an early performance on the following day.
After each performance over the two weeks, even those with post-show dialogue, many would remain in the theatre and in the theatre lobby to greet me and give their further comments. This made evenings long, and the afternoon of the matinee was no exception. However, I can only regard it, this energy towards further engagement, as validation of the strength and impact of this work.
We made it to the end of this piece of the odyssey. My energy and attention is already turned towards Anacostia, Washington DC, and what four weeks of performances at The Anacostia Playhouse will be like. I need to rest up, but I am eager for the challenge and up for all the awakening that it promises.
DC is an exciting prospect for our next stop. It is a smaller, more tightly-knit theatre and academic community, with an unheard, unseen population all it’s own, and a theatre right in the middle of an underserved neighborhood on its way back. There will be a great deal to do and explore there. The greater DC area may or may not be happy we came, but we certainly will not go unnoticed.by
Some of the film footage that filmmaker, Bobby Razak shot over the weekend of the Luna Stage engagement of “American Moor” at the end of February went into creating this trailer. It serves not only as a calling card for the play itself, but, and perhaps more importantly, it is a piece meant to show the value in continuing to pursue the film project as a separate endeavor entirely.
This would be a documentary about the making and the maker of “American Moor,” examining the play’s themes in the greater context of the actor/playwright’s American life. We hope to get more footage at the upcoming engagement at The Wild Project, in NYC beginning April 21st. Then, at The Anacostia Playhouse in Washington DC when we are there in July and August of this year. Ultimately, we want to culminate in London, where the filmmaker is originally from, and log the performance and post-show dialogue before a British audience.
Bobby Razak is actively seeking investors to further this exciting endeavor. Interested parties may contact him. Mail to: Bobby Razak.
Our performance of “American Moor” at the Nyumburu Cultural Center on the campus of the University of Maryland sponsored by The Office of Diversity and Inclusion on Tuesday evening 4/7 was cancelled due to a massive power failure in large part of the state that took out power on the entire UMD campus! Needless to say we were all extremely disappointed, and we are already talking about a rescheduling of the event for the beginning of the fall semester.
I was particularly disappointed because the post-show discussion that was slated to be facilitated by Dr. Faedra Carpenter would not happen.
However, sights are now set on the DC area production at The Anacostia Playhouse this summer, and towards another chance to play to the student population at UMD in the fall.by
So much of my time is currently being spent focused on the 11 dates of “Moor” in Manhattan. But this promises to be a truly intimate, one-time, event with the students of UMD and a post-show discussion with Dr. Faedra Carpenter. The event is open to all.by
And that’s all there really is to say… The New York City debut of this play begins on April 21st. The Wild Project is an intimate 88 seat black box playing space on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It is the perfect space to perform this piece in, and I expect it to be oversold for all of it’s eleven dates.
The members of Phoenix Theatre Ensemble and I are all hugely excited about this endeavor. Our collaboration in presenting this work is the next logical step in the performance path of something that I’ve begun to believe has true contemporary relevance and import.
As per usual, I urge everyone to secure a seat soon, and to come be a part of this continuing discussion.
For those who’ve come late to the party, just to bring you up to speed…
American Moor is a passionate and uneasy study of a large African American actor auditioning for the role of Othello for a middle-aged white director who portends to have knowledge about how a large black man should act and respond in an unaccepting society.
The play asks uncomfortable and complex questions, moving to much larger issues than the audition/theatre process: Is there a patronizing racism that exists in our contemporary theatre? Is this a microcosm of progressive/liberal society that thinks it has knowledge of the black experience? Do directors want to work with actors who ask challenging questions in a 3-week rehearsal process?
And then, there is the whole issue of whether or not we can ever talk past our own personal perspective to address any of these questions and a multitude of others…
It’s a big chunk of theatre that will make you laugh… or maybe weep…
“In this remarkable evening a unique performer with an uncanny ear for the language of Shakespeare lures you into taking a startling double journey.
In the seeming act of demolishing The Bard’s OTHELLO and resurrecting him in his own image, Keith Hamilton Cobb takes you on a riveting journey through the love and rage in the turbulent interior of a modern black man.”
Ellen Holly, Actress/Writer, author of ONE LIFE: The Autobiography of an African American Actress.by
Added to the weekend’s many adventures was the presence of film maker, Bobby Razak, and his crew, accruing footage for some cinematic rendering of the play, and a study of the myriad elements that have conspired to give birth to and grow it.
Bobby’s film making career has spanned twenty years, focusing mostly on the world of mixed martial arts. But he is also taken with theatre, and this project presents a huge departure for him in his work, and an exploration of an actor’s life as opposed to that of a fighter’s… There are many similarities as we have discovered…
Two of the three performances over the course of the weekend were extremely strong from a critical standpoint. One was not. We had issues that effected all of us, camera crew, theatre staff, and performer on Saturday night that made it difficult to muscle through to the curtain call. But the audience response that evening was equally as positive and complimentary as it had been on either of the other two nights. I am beginning to believe that the content of the script is tending to outweigh what might from time to time be lacking in performance. This is a wonderful reassurance. Not that I plan to get lazy and let the power of the words carry the show forward. We’ve still got a long way to go… But I was encouraged by the weekend with all its ups and downs. Those that came out made everything work, and contributed to the further education of everyone involved.
“American Moor” is such a minimalist and simple show to stage. It is essentially a single man on a bare stage for 87 minutes… And so it is continually fascinating to me how layered and complex the matter of the play becomes, particularly when discussions about what was just experienced continue after the curtain call.
So we are looking forward to the spring, and our ten dates with The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble at The Wild Project space in the East Village. Spring… when the weather begins to warm, and people’s brains begin to turn on again for the few weeks before it gets insufferably hot. Our New York debut!! As usual, I hope everyone can come out and see this play. But at least no one will be able to offer the excuse that it was snowing…by
This is a return engagement to the venue where “American Moor” played to an over-sold house in August of 2014. I’m excited to be returning to Luna Stage for three dates in February/March. The play has undergone some slight evolutions since the August staging, and we are expected the numbers to come out and lend their minds to its continuing growth.
There are also a couple of other new creative experiments we’ll be launching at this engagement, and I hope all those in the trip-state area who have not yet experienced this important piece of theatre will come out and be a part of this newest exploration.
COME PLAY WITH US!!
Click below to be taken to the calendar and box office for Luna Stage.by
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
I went to see the film, Selma.
Not because of the hype it’s been riding. There are innumerable films that do that each year that are not worth the price of admission, and certainly not worth two hours of my time.
I didn’t go because I needed to have the story retold to me. Having lived, a black American for over half a century, the cinema of this piece of my history continues to play in my consciousness, enhanced to high definition by events occurring presently and regularly. I need no movie to re-illustrate for me the highlights, and only the highlights, of the bad old days without the depth of exploration required to offer me any truly new perspective.
I did not go because the story of the struggle of the black American for civil rights, or, for that matter, the story of Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave, or the story of Rosewood, or of the Tuskegee Airmen in Red Tails were stories more worthy to be told when measured against all of the stories of black people that there are to tell. I find a troubling irony in all of the reaching back we do for the purpose of immortalizing some piece of black American history, when what those historical figures were all most intent upon was creating an even playing field for us in the present day, a goal which, despite the endless efforts of ancestors remains widely unachieved, and, in glaring instances, would seem now to be in a process of complete regression.
I would be pleased to sacrifice all the films about all the black icons of the past—now so very safe to speak of in laudatory terms—for a high-budgeted Hollywood film or two about contemporary black men and women as, if we care to look, we can observe them today. Not sophomoric comedians, or urban malcontents, but leading men and women, self-governing, sexy, proactive, effectual, whose present day lives, and on-camera focus-holding abilities are every bit as compelling and cinema worthy as DiCaprio, Affleck, Damon, Pitt, and all this entire last generation of white movie star, and certainly this newest one.
In any event, I went to see the film, Selma, but I didn’t see Dr. King. He, what I know about him, and I know a lot, was conspicuously absent. But then, the film was not made for the likes of me.
I would like to say that I support all American actors, and what there is of an American acting tradition. I would like to say it in the same way that I would like to say that I would have rallied in support of all poor and disenfranchised people of the American south circa 1960. But it is not wholly true. The civil rights struggle in America was not, is not everybody’s struggle. The rights of most white Americans, particularly those of affluence, but even the poorest among them were, and remain far less in question. I went to see the film, Selma, because I wanted to watch a large number of black American actors being paid to act in something for camera that wasn’t immediately dismissible. I saw that, and enjoyed seeing it, mostly because I don’t see it nearly enough. I had hoped that it would be even less dismissible than it ultimately was, but perhaps, given all that there is to understand about the intersection of American race relations and Hollywood, that would have been way too much to ask.
There are things to be pleased about when considering the film, Selma. Its displaying the epic scope of the voting rights campaign of Dr. King wasn’t one of them. The film wasn’t Gandhi, though King’s story is no less replete with the same mythic grandeur. Instead, Selma was a slightly anemic and expository telling of the tale, played to the young—who would have little awareness of the events of the 60’s—as if to be telling them the story for the first time. Still, it was a pleasing film. Most pleasing about it was not the film itself at all, but that a black American woman director was let helm a major Hollywood motion picture. Of that fact, I cannot deny that something in the motion of history must be changing for the better, however agonizingly slowly… Something… One dying of thirst will be grateful for every drop of water. And so this was, indeed, a reason for celebration. And as I say above, it is pleasing too that so many black actors had acting jobs. They could have more if Hollywood would deign to tell more of our stories, or show more of us as we appear in present-day life, that is everywhere and always… But again, if work is work, for now I will take a little solace in another rehash of the MLK saga if only for the abundance of black scene-swellers to people the world. As we can take from recent conversations with studio executives made public by the Sony hack, black actors in most other capacities are apparently a bad business move. They would say, “This is not racism, this is business. The Japanese are racist not to buy Denzel when we try to sell him to them. We’re just going where the money is.” If that’s true, and I don’t know for certain that it’s not, I don’t tend to argue with it. I mean, what else would they say? Inclusion is not their M.O., making bank is. And I’m tired of Denzel being the only black leading man anyway. But where does that leave us?
It leaves us with no real cinematic examples to show our youth of black American men and women in a realistic twenty first century context, at least not anywhere near in proportion to the on-screen portrayals of white America, from the legitimately remarkable to the completely mundane. It leaves us reaching backward, if we want to tell black stories and employ black actors, glorifying any black figures of the past that Hollywood will allow, as if we only existed then—forever dejected and wretched but for the individual that Hollywood retrospectively deems extraordinary—and we are not in existence now. Will we always need to be telling the story of a Jackie Robinson, or a James Brown, a Malcolm X, or a Martin Luther King in order to justify just spinning a good and compelling yarn about the lives of authentic black people? No Mystic River, or Silver Linings Playbook for black Americans? Or don’t black people get bi-polar disorder? Because we are bound to run out of those “important” black people sooner or later, as far as Hollywood is concerned… And, like the business of inclusion, they are not in the authenticity business either.
Black Hollywood, which is to say that handful of black actors, directors, and entrepreneurs who have been allowed to come and play in the Whites Only sandbox—in turn allowing white America to believe it has altruistically achieved some post-racial stasis, and can now be complacent, if not out right proud of itself—will do better by the black youth of this nation by striving to show them more contemporary, positive images of their race in television and film on a daily basis, rather than by showing them, from time to time, one black character or another from a past that they never knew, and telling them that they should identify. But, as guests in the sandbox, if through no fault of its own Black Hollywood is relegated to telling these limited tales of our past black American icons (limited both in scope and frequency) as opposed to the stories that highlight the might, and wisdom, power, and passion, depth, and diversity of our contemporary black American men and women — if this is their situation and they would make the most of it, why so often are our stories being told by British actors?
Regarding Selma, why were the roles of the protagonist and his wife, icons of this suddenly Oscar-worthy black American past, enacted by British actors? I must be honest here and say that it is a problem that the entire industry should answer for. British actors in American films are an older institution than Albert Finney and Anthony Hopkins, and perhaps the matter should be addressed industry-wide, for the fact of it certainly gives me to wonder. But I am concerned about something else that is, I think, much more problematic here. I believe there are American actors who would have done a superior job of enacting LBJ, or George Wallace, roles given instead to Brits Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth respectively (Wilkinson in particular did the production no service in this role, not because of historical inaccuracies of character, but because his performance came less near to Johnson in appearance and demeanor than Oyelowo’s did to King). I believe uncountable American actors would have turned in superior performances in both roles if for no other reason but that their American acting instruments, oozing with American ethos born of the generations that lived the very story in question, were primed for it.
I think it’s a waste to not let the culture that lived the story tell it, plain and simple.
And yet, where white actors are concerned, I’ll easily let that go, for white American stories in Hollywood are endless in supply, and there is no shortage of roles for the white actor who didn’t get to play LBJ or George Wallace this time around. Contrarily, there are precious few roles for black American actors to play, not because they couldn’t be cast in greater numbers, and more visibly, in almost any film being made in Hollywood right now, thus more realistically fleshing out the pastiche of contemporary American life, but because they are not, thus raising the troubling question of what Hollywood would prefer we all believe America looks like. More troubling still is that, all too often, we do believe it…
If one had seen, The Man in Room 306, a solo play written and performed by the black American actor, Craig Alan Edwards, when it had its run at the 59 East 59th Street Theatres in Manhattan in January of 2010, one would have seen an actor who sounded like Dr. King, looked, in his performance, often uncannily like Dr. King, and portrayed aspects of the complex leader’s character that Selma, in its made for mass consumption style, could not afford to explore. Mr. Edwards had developed his script over twenty years. And, watching him, I wondered what would compel an actor to chase the idea of a character for that long.
He grew up watching and listening to the events of the struggle in the South as they evolved and came to a head. He was, he told me, listening to the speeches of Dr. King from the age of 16, entranced by the cadences and inflections of his oratory, and reading all that was written about him. It was, for Mr. Edwards, no stretch of the imagination, but wholly experiential how King’s words and actions resonated for him in the world of 1960’s Philadelphia where he grew to manhood. His resemblance to King is, perhaps, coincidental, but nothing other than a life lived in the struggle (and make no mistake, it continues to be a struggle for any black American man to be seen as wholly equal, wholly American) can channel the energies that animated the authentic animal of MLK—not the King co-opted by white parade organizers every third Monday in January, capitalizing on the energy of altruism as if the work is all done, and they have now but to sit back and make money on the celebration—not the story-book figure the reverence for whom makes us think ourselves worthy of Academy Awards simply for invoking his name—but the black American male whose spirit only another black American male and heir of the era could effectively incarnate. And yes, black people in the UK have their struggle as well. But it is not our struggle. It does not play the same.
David Oyelowo was not the best choice for the lead in Selma, bearing not the slightest resemblance to the historical figure he was to portray. His accent work was conspicuous, and most profoundly, the struggle that the black American continues to live did not live in him. He was an imposter, if I can say that without malice. But Craig Alan Edwards would never have been considered in his stead for the role of Dr. King in the film, Selma. Nor would endless other highly trained and competent black American actors, whose American experience makes them immediately more suited for the role than all of Oyelowo’s British bona fides, for two reasons. First, in the same way that the myth that “white is better” has been so perpetuated as to influence every aspect of life from the very seat of the collective American psyche, the myth that British is better holds equal sway over the entertainment industry. Secondly, Hollywood will sell whatever myth can be shown to make the most money. And, as I’ve suggested above, no one can really blame them. They are not in the business of uplifting the race. More darkly, they do not really want to, and that, the struggle to exorcise the fear and hatred from the heart of white American is a battle for many other days to come. Meanwhile, however, Black Hollywood has no such excuse, and cannot claim its good intentions with regard to black Americans only when it is convenient.
I liked the film, Selma, despite its many shortcomings. But it was not the best film that black Americans could have conspired to create on the matter. They are to be forgiven, because I am quite sure that creative control was not largely theirs, black American woman director, Ava Duvernay, and Oprah Winfrey notwithstanding. I certainly can’t claim knowledge of all the details, the deal-making, and the endless effort that went into getting this picture off the ground. Nor is it the purpose here to impugn anybody’s good intention. And I know that, despite all the challenges, and obviously against odds, these black artists, to the extent of their ability, conspired and pushed forward with a project that culminated in a film of merit. I must respect and applaud them. They did what they needed to in order to get just that much done. And perhaps, when the Oprah Winfrey bio-pic is done one day, Thandie Newton, another “better” British substitute for a black American, will have come of an age where she can be tapped to play the role.
But, for my money, there are just simply myriad and better stories to tell that speak of the continuing, and absolutely contemporary struggle of the American black man for his rightful place of dignity and respect on the American landscape un-allayed by British portrayals of his truth, past, present, and future.
Yes, things are changing. And we must not forget the sacrifices and struggles of our ancestors in bringing these changes about. It is right to honor and immortalize them, for ourselves and for our children. But in watching the film, Selma, the question remained present in my mind: If triumphs in civil rights have gained us the right to sit at the table, and, in fact, to be the same short-sighted, cynical, and so often cowardly brokers of power as our white counterparts, and we own it… who is truly to blame for our condition?
And what would the Reverend Dr. take more solace from, another movie in his name, a day off in his honor, or black American youth being able to look at a television show, or a film, and believe that all black lives are things more than peripheral to life in America, not just the handful that are famous?
My parents are black American professionals, as were their parents before them. It could be said that, before King and the civil rights struggle of the 50’s and 60’s, they, as educators, and physicians, were already quite busy at creating a better world for their progeny. Here, now, in 2015, I am a manifestation of all that they did and were; a black American whose experience in no way mirrors the vast majority of images of black Americans that still populate the media… And I am an actor with truths to tell.
“The Odd Purgatory of My Personal Perception” is a collection of stories that have been kicked around on one laptop of mine or another for the past 15 years. Some have said that they are not stories at all. Maybe they’re right. Some call them erotic short fiction. Others have said that there is nothing erotic about them. We’ll see…
Fourteen selections… or so… Small noises… Big silences… Awkward, unbalanced, verbose, meandering prose in bite-sized pieces…
And it’s coming soon.
…She was God’s child, so he had thought; one of the ones that the Universe looks after because, for whatever reason, they didn’t end up here upon this seething orb of self-serving fuck-ups with the tools to fend for themselves, so he thought… Dumber than a box of rocks, he’d thought, but as delicate and as lovely as an orchid. And she smelled like vanilla ice cream. She was the sort of vacuous that could be beyond sexy when the sexy wore it. And he had not been looking for a lover that would be anything more than that: sexy, immediate, and unencumbering ever after. He had few other reasons to subject himself to a barroom’s sensory barrage of boisterous humanity. Everywhere else, feeling the oppressive weight of its incurious tumbling on, he navigated around the dumb motion of the masses as best his own too human condition could manage. The only thing to be gotten by braving the concentration of festering crowd psychology that a Friday night tavern contained was the prize of some pretty diversion intent on receiving him without superfluous ceremony; something sweet and soft to distract his embattled heart and sate his hunger for an hour or two without making of itself a nuisance in the a.m., and she came dancing up to him from out of the aggregate of noise and dark and compressed bodies in a joint in Seattle, and stood at the bar staring at him, blankly, as her hips swayed to the bass beat of The Isley Brothers singing “Caravan of Love…”
Of all three public performances of this new, developing play to date, this one, Monday night, the 11th of August, was the most energized, the best performed, the tightest textually, and the most satisfying evening of theatre that I, as the performer have had for some time. Luna Stage is a 98 seat “black box” theatre space. The seats were filled with a diverse audience, a combination of Luna’s regular patron base, some friends and colleagues of mine, and a number of people having come from as far away as DC, Massachusetts, and Missouri, to lend their minds and voices to the growth of this work, and all for one evening in the dead of summer, the toughest time to get people to come out and support theatre.
What I have found about these one-night-only presentations of “Moor” is that there can be no real relaxing into the work. There is the one opportunity to put it on its feet, have people watch, listen, and comment, then nothing until the next time you get a space to mount it, and an audience to watch it. In that circumstance, nerves are high, the space is unfamiliar, things are happening for the first time, that haven’t happened anywhere else. This can lend itself to what people like to call “the magic of theatre,” or create utter amateur hour… The entire creative process is stilted at best. As those sorts of things go, this was a fairly strong showing. At least I thought so, and the audience responses seemed to back up my perception.
This play is trying to speak to several very complex issues that haunt our culture in a very short space of time. It frustrates me to attempt to do so, and I think it frustrates the audience as well. It is a lot to hear and consider, and one tendency seems to be to say to the play, “That just ain’t so… It’s not like that. It’s like something else.” As we ventured into the “talk-back” segment of the evening, I felt the agitation that this play causes in the bodies of people. This, I felt, is a good thing. If it were not rattling people into thought, and reaction, there would be cause for worry. But people are outspoken and vehement in their reactions to this piece, and I’m guessing, for all my creative frustration, that I’ve done something right… something…
The discussion was long, and we spoke to many uncomfortable aspects of the play. The play is about the discussion that never gets had. I’m encouraged that it seems to want to happen in the moments following the curtain call. People have had their emotions stirred, and are all wanting to express, “This is what I feel!” We asked them to please feel free to express it. They did not disappoint us. We spoke like a group of people, diverse in background and experience, all trying to understand the same thing; to find a point of balance. In that respect, I think the play did what it was supposed to. American theatre did what it’s supposed to.
Then… We stood on the stage and talked, one to one, face to face, until it was late. Many did. I suspect that means there was something worth staying late and talking about…
I’m grateful to Luna Stage Company, and all who came out to make this evening with me. I knew there was a reason to be doin’ this shit.
On both sides of the crime and punishment equation there reside imposters in the great city.
They are not difficult to identify, for they can be found seeking not to benefit the city, but to benefit themselves. Criminals do this. It is the very definition of their enterprise. Seeking to benefit one’s self at the expense of the greater good is also a human failing, however. Another is the tendency to cloak the criminal enterprise in rationale that either excuses it, or worse, dresses it up to look as though it is in support of the great city that one goes about one’s selfish business.
The great city strives to be just. It does not strive for justice after the fact, for any mediocre society will show a semblance of making that effort. There is no greatness in that. The great city is just before the fact, always and only… The great city defines itself by what is just, and the pursuit of justice presupposes that what is just has already been undone; that what is just has fled, and justice seeks but vainly to retrieve it. But it cannot be gotten again. We of the great city cannot, in our hearts, ask an eye for an eye. If we know the difference between “just” and “justice” we cannot. If we derive our solace and comfort from the punitive, we do not belong here, in the great, just city. We of the great city know that restoring what is just can only mean doing the impossible; that we un-injure the injured, un-wrong the wronged, and return the dead to life. We know that, in the just city, injustice cannot thrive, but once it has entered in, we cannot undue the damage it does. If it is here, then the just city has become unjust, and ungreat, and we can only start again, from the beginning, as a people, in the great city, to be just.
Because, in the great city, we are just, we must forgive cop and criminal alike. We must admit, if we are just, and not seeking justice, that we cannot often tell them apart, and hope that they come to realize that they are both engaged in service to themselves, no matter what they would like to claim. And we hope that they will forgive us, seeing that we are people, and not great, like them, in the great city.by
Another me could’ve found a way
To hear the things you didn’t say,
And know what all you needed done,
Not you, but her, that other one.
And proven worthy of her trust,
Her grace, her company, her lust.
But I scarcely knew that she was there,
And, of the you I was aware,
She did the other you no good
To be not as the other would;
To disguise her so as I’d not see
What she was needing most of me.
But there was no other me to seek
The other you who did not speak;
Who just expected me to know
Her other heart she did not show,
And somehow to commiserate
With her who I first saw of late.
The one me did all he could do,
Having too late met the other you.