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Integrity in the Time of Post-Truth

An Actor Wonders How to Be in a Culture Devoid of Honest Self-Assessment

It’s Tuesday, November 15th, so how long is that after the presidential election?  And that’s how long it’s taken for me to realize this most absurd of things has actually occurred.  In fact, the level of absurdity is such that it cannot bear rational commentary.  The only truth to be gleaned from the morass of sound that generated it, and that it is generating, is that it HAS occurred.  We can try to put our brains around that fact if we like—it’s taken me a week—and take action from there.  But I can leave the talking to the pundits of the entertainment news networks, who are wholly culpable in helping to bring this absurdity about.  While I haven’t watched any television news since election night, I’m quite sure they are readily embarked upon the lucrative endeavors of talking about the absurdity that their talking about promulgated in the first place.  They got you comin’ and goin’…  It’s a helluva business…  But I don’t have to invest.  I don’t think any of it was my fault, and know that I wouldn’t be able to fix it if I tried.   That doesn’t mean I won’t try.  There’s much to do, but I don’t think there’s much to say at this point unless you’re selling something.  It’s fucked in numberless ways, but there it is.  And here we are…

If I’m going to talk, I want to talk about theatre.  This is something I know.  I’m an actor.  I can impact this, a little bit with my talent, but that’s the cheapest of commodities.  I can impact it more, much more, with something far more scarce, integrity, and the simple, but not easy act of showing up with all 110% of the artist in me ready to play, or fight, however you wanna bring it.  Discussions of American theatre are important to me.  We must have them because Read More →

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Romeo and Juliet at The Shakespeare Theatre Company

Romeo and Juliet at The Shakespeare Theatre Company, Washington, D.C., August – November, 2016

This was a long summer into autumn with many talented people and a company that has been in the Shakespeare business for a long time.  An extended run, I mean it is Romeo and Juliet after all.  I think you might draw a few more if you did West Side Story, but not many…

Lord Capulet is another one of those supporting roles that needs to be fleshed out. Because you can’t add text, and, in many cases, as in this one, text is removed to shorten the play, there is some work to be done to make him anything like a human being.  The things that motivate his behavior have to be firmly rooted internally for them to appear to an audience without the text that might otherwise accompany them.  There is also a process of nurturing each of the characters on stage to the point where they are able to assist in the telling of one another’s stories.

This Capulet was interesting, struggling clearly with his urges towards love and hate, and navigating the space between, if not wholly there.

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Photo: Scott Suchman From left: Rafael Sebastian, Elan Zafir, James Konicek, Jasmine Alexis

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Photo: Scott Suchman From Left: Jasmine Alexis, Judith Lightfoot Clarke as Lady Capulet

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Photo: Scott Suchman Background: Inga Ballard as The Nurse

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Photo: Scott Suchman With Ayanna Workman as Juliet

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Photo: Scott Suchman With Ayanna Workman as Juliet

 

 

 

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Julius Caesar at Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival

Julius Caesar  at Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival  June/July 2016

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This was a talented ensemble of seasoned professionals, with a young company of eager, intelligent and highly focused students at Desales University.  The director, who was also the producing artistic director of the theatre, Patrick Mulcahy, was/is a seasoned professional and former actor who knew his Shakespeare.  Ya gotta know your Shakespeare, y’all!  He told a tight, intense, moving story with simple staging, costumes, and sets.

It helps, I think, when directing good actors, to have been one yourself.  Too many directors, I find, have studied telling actors what to do without any real understanding of why and how actors do.

Roz Coleman as Calphurnia

Roz Coleman as Calphurnia

As the artistic director of a mid-tier Shakespeare festival with limited funds, it also pays to be deft at the husbandry of resources.  I’ve always maintained that good Shakespeare can be done on a bare stage in jeans and t-shirts.  But that probably doesn’t work quite so well if you are trying to sell it to the American masses, who are much better at seeing than they are at listening…  Mr. Mulcahy was able to rally the requisite team of creatives to paint a compelling picture and tell a believable story without the benefit of uncountable riches, and I imagine he was able to do that as a manifestation of his extensive experience.  Of course, experience doesn’t always guarantee any such result.  Not all regional theatre experiences can I call successes, and some that are would be better termed “happy accidents.”  But I think, in this case, that clear intention and an ability to work with and integrate all creative elements bolstered by a life already lived in the theatre were to be given the credit.

Spencer Plachy as Mark Antony

Spencer Plachy as Mark Antony

As for the play…  I haven’t seen many Caesars who didn’t stalk about the first half of this play declaiming self-aggrandizing platitudes, and making themselves so damned annoying that nobody ever really gave a shit when they got knifed to death in the assassination scene. That’s sort of how Shakespeare wrote him, and he can be forgiven for the parameters of his form that sometimes left characters to stand as representations of a thing more than the authentic human incarnation of that thing with all its nuance and complexity.  People aren’t simple. The way I see it, if we are telling stories about people, then no one in the story can be left as an unexplained idea, least of all the title character, or else the story isn’t ever really told… I didn’t want to be that guy.  Patrick Mulcahy and I both thought it much more important to the play to make it rather ambiguous whether the issue was ever really Caesar’s conceit and ambition, or the egos and jealousies of his assassins.  He had to behave in such ways as made people think about who he might actually be as a human being, not just what he represented.  When you begin to recognize the levels in a man, you can begin, perhaps, to empathize.  I wanted the audience to like him enough to mourn him when he died.  I think we did that.

Kathy Lauer-William wrote in The Morning Call: “Keith Hamilton Cobb’s Julius Caesar is something of an enigma. He is certainly charismatic but is he a danger? There are some hints of arrogance but it’s never clear if he would truly be a threat to Rome.”

Paul Willistein wrote in The Bethlehem Press: “Keith Hamilton Cobb, an imposing figure, strides the stage like a colossus (“This man has become a God,” Cassius marvels-warns) and yet he’s likable, humble and the least wrath-filled God this side of the universe”

And Mark Cofta wrote in Broad Street Review: “Keith Hamilton Cobb makes an appropriately enigmatic conqueror. Tall and dignified, with President Obama-style hair tinged with gray, he doesn’t seem “a man of such a feeble temper” as Cassius (Greg Wood, compelling as always) describes, and has a majestic charm that’s easy to like.”

I think my director and I found old Julius a little justice.

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from left: Henry Woronicz as Brutus, Steven Dennis as Metellus Cimber, Greg Wood as Cassius

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Just A Whole Lot to Talk About…

I decided I’d leave this here because it really doesn’t fit in any other category.  This was a gab session done in LA for a podcast with Hilliard Guess and his co-host, Lisa Bolekaja.  Hill is a screenwriter and producer.  His company is Hilldog Productions, and his podcast heard in several countries, is called The Screenwriters Rant Room.  So…  When we talk about things that one has just got to say…  Ranting is cathartic.  I must have left the rant room a couple of pounds lighter at least.

 

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The Ignorance is Astounding, but Far From Surprising Anymore

It’s not always Brits…  Sometimes, in fact quite often, it’s Americans who have a boner for Britannia that just won’t die.  Back in July, The Guardian magazine printed a piece wherein Michael Douglas was speaking on the hiring of British and Australian actors over American ones to people American films, citing American actors’ image-consciousness, lack of machismo, and asexuality.  In his defense, I believe he was more concerned for what he called the “crisis” of the American industry, than expressing the fascination with English talent that the rest of the industry seems to be obsessed with to the point of fetish.  Still, what seems to be missing in his musings is the fact that he, like many in the successful Hollywood acting class, is the product of nepotism.  He is a celebrity who is, to my mind, while an absolutely serviceable actor whose work I have enjoyed, not particularly diverse, nor exceptionally compelling.  And I contend that no one would know his name if he were not the son of an iconic movie star who did, in fact, achieve prominence all on his own along with the likes of Lancaster and Mitchum, macho-men of the first order, who held the camera’s gaze in a way that he never could.  While he, in his tabloid exploits, has been sure to make it quite clear that he is anything but asexual, I contend further that he is not now, nor ever has been a macho-man himself, that Hollywood makes heroes out of those it chooses, and it has, of late, been choosing Englishmen, because of America’s age-old sense of arousal induced by all things British.

What Douglas has in common with successful British actors is the oblivious notion that they are who they are and what they are by naturally occurring selective processes that have nothing to do with the unevenness of the playing field, and everything to do with their own superior talent.  You can hear it in the ignorant, dismissive comments of Charlotte Rampling and Michael Caine concerning the lack of African American representation at this past year’s Academy Awards.  And you can hear it in the comments of British stage actor, Simon Callow, in the article below from the periodical, The Stage.  The Stage is a British entertainment industry magazine, thus the views expressed therein, depending of course upon who’s reading them, will naturally tend to bend, not towards highlighting the problem of diversity and bias in the business – where inclusion cognizance is concerned, the English, for the most part, seem to regard themselves as lightyears ahead of their American cousins – but rather towards illustrating the staggering lack of awareness among white, and in this case British, successful industry professionals that the problem actually exists at all.  Like Michael Douglas, they will generally speak from their position on third base where they stand self-assuredly thinking they hit a triple.  I may be conflating a couple of different issues here, but I only seek to illustrate that life on the inside is pretty fucking good, and it’s extremely difficult for one encased therein to see accurately what’s beyond it.  If you are incapable of conceiving of the very idea of white privilege because you have been blinded your entire life by its benefits, as far as you are concerned, there will never be a problem to address.  This situation creates a dire circumstance, because only those outside the circle of privilege will ever understand that it is there.  Perhaps, tragically, it is, in that case, insurmountable…

A group called British Black and Asian Shakespeare @BBAShakespeare works to raise awareness regarding the conditions of and around diversity and inclusion in the UK industry, and pushes back at some of the uninformed ideas expressed by Simon Callow below.  I can only hope there are others.  Meanwhile, the italics superimposed upon the article are mine, as if there were any confusion…

@KeithHamCobb

#MoorToThisStory

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Academic Honors, and A Performance at University of Maryland

The week after Easter, 2016, saw some milestones for the performance life of American Moor.  UMD Moor w:audience

The production of the play that had taken place in DC, at the Anacostia Playhouse in the summer of the previous year, was recognized by the Folger Shakespeare Library, the preeminent institution of Shakespearean scholarship, and the largest collection of Renaissance literature in the world.  And what in the world does one say about a thing like that??!!  

Plays are like people.  You give birth to them, and they evolve over time.  The summer production at The Playhouse was just another stop on the developmental arc of the work.  And that’s all that any of us involved were doing, nurturing the health of a new and exciting piece of theatre.  No one was expecting the recognition of so august an institution as the Folger.

from left, Dr. Frank Madden, professor of English, Dr. Michael Witmore, Director, Folger Shakespeare Library, Daniel De Simone, Head Librarian, Folger Shakespeare Library

from left, Dr. Frank Madden, professor of English, Dr. Michael Witmore, Director, Folger Shakespeare Library, Daniel De Simone, Head Librarian, Folger Shakespeare Library

We were no more expecting that than we were expecting the Audelco Award, recognizing the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble production the previous spring.

It feels funny to say, “We’ve got something special here.” Self-praise does nothing to enhance the honest growth of any artistic work.  But other voices are speaking rather loudly on behalf of our efforts, and I’m beginning to believe them.

On the evening of March 28th, we celebrated the Folger’s acceptance of our work with a cocktail reception at the Anacostia Playhouse. 

The following evening, there was yet one more one-off performance of American Moor in the Kogod Theatre at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. The Kogod is a one hundred and seventy seat black box space, and different than any other space in which we had played to date.

The event was sponsored by the university’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion.  It was well attended, and followed by a post-performance discussion lead by Khalid Long, a doctoral candidate in the School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies.  12513694_1586863738300027_3366954172210828079_oAs with every new space, the need to adapt to unique, and previously unaccustomed surroundings created new moments of discovery and growth; the magic in doing something different for the first time because the circumstances demand it…  At the Kogod, the stage space was small, and only six inches or so off the floor. This allowed me to step down off the actual stage and walk right up to people seated in the first row, bringing them deeper into the play itself, and not allowing them the safety and remove of spectators.

The end of the week in the DC/Maryland area culminated with The Third Annual Black Theatre Symposium at the University of Maryland.  I was able to engage with other theatre makers, and connect with students involved in creating the next generation of performance art.UMD-Black-Theatre-Symposium-Web

So here we are… The sights remain set on NYC…  We have been out in the countryside, created friends and colleagues in several states, in the halls of academia, in multiple theatre communities, and among the people around the country who are inevitably moved by this work.  It now needs a home, at least a temporary one, to sharpen the edges of the presentation just a little more; to define moments, to hone in on every subtle nuance, and then to run for weeks.  There are any number of theaters in any number of major cities that could serve to raise the national profile of American Moor, but New York is my home.  It’s where all this started.  It is the theatre community from which so much of the material that fabricates the play is drawn. American Moor is asking for huge questions to be addressed.  They are questions the answers to which will govern what the future will be, in the American Theatre, and in the world from which it draws it’s stories.

12308609_1586582218328179_8046412234011147107_nI’m restless to put these questions before the American populace at large.

I am eager to hear what it will say.

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KEYNOTE PERFORMANCE

AMERICAN MOOR Opens and Closes

The Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival Region 7

Denver, CO, February 15-19, 2016

Rehearsal Rawls Courtyard Theatre, Denver 2/19/16

Rehearsal Rawls Courtyard Theatre, Denver 2/19/16

The Kennedy Center Festival consists of 8 regions.  Colleges from Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Northern California, Idaho, Northern Nevada, Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado make up Region 7, and students from theatre programs throughout these states converged on downtown Denver for a week of workshops, performances, competitions, and discussion on aspects of theatre from acting to scenic design, lighting design, and other elements of stagecraft.

IMG_9826A performance of American Moor opened the festival on Monday, 2/15, and concluded it on the following Friday.  Students who had attended the performance in the Eugenia Rawls Courtyard Theatre of The King Center on The University of Denver’s Auraria Campus were compelled to talk it up throughout the week.  By Friday, the play had become the prevalent buzz of the Festival.  Friday’s performance was huge and powerful to the full house, and revelatory to actor and audience alike.

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Rehearsing in the space with director, Kim Weild

This was the first performance under the direction of Kim Weild, who had introduced some minor changes in tone.  There was no time before Denver to dig deeply, but we were looking forward to deeper explorations when we returned to New York.  We were also new to the space, a stadium like theatre in style that was still very intimate, and demanded a performance the delivery of which was much more “up and out” than what I had grown used to in smaller houses.3P4A4462

For students of theatre, while the social justice aspect of the play was not lost upon them, just as many seemed to be particularly taken with the idea that powerful theatre could be so simple, i.e., a bare stage, a body, some chairs, and a truth.  Many voiced their realization that their theatre was waiting to be made just as simply, without the support, the permission, or approval of anything beyond themselves.

For me, Denver is as far away from home as I have taken the play in its performance life.  20160219_145326Each new audience seems to embrace it, no matter where they are, no matter how diverse or homogenous, American Moor seems to speak to something human in all of us.

This was a week of youthful, creative energy that I surfed back to New York, where plans for the next engagement for American Moor were already underway.

Post-Performance discussion with playwright and educator, Idris Goodwin

Post-Performance discussion with playwright and educator, Idris Goodwin

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American Moor’s 2015

The Things We Did, The People We Saw, And What They Had To Say…

Luna Stage Company

Phoenix Theatre Ensemble

Anacostia Playhouse

Rider University

The Brickerati Group

Kevin E. Taylor

Bobby Razak

The Folger Shakespeare Library

AUDELCO (Audience Development Committee, Inc.)

It all looked something like this…

 

 

2016 is going to be astounding!!!  We’ll see you there…

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HONORED

American Moor is Recognized for Outstanding Solo Performance at the 2015 AUDELCO Awards.

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.

Audelco-AwardI haven’t a great deal to say about this night, other than my sense of gratitude that people have noticed this work…  Audelco-Acceptance

 

…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.

 

 

Paul Kwame Johnson, director, Phoenix Theatre Ensemble production

Paul Kwame Johnson, director, Phoenix Theatre Ensemble production

Elise Stone and Craig Smith, producing artistic directors, Phoenix Theatre Ensemble

Elise Stone and Craig Smith, producing artistic directors, Phoenix Theatre Ensemble

There is MOOR to this story…

Stay tuned, or you might miss something wonderful.

 

 

 

 

 

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Now Available

In Print, eBook, and Downloadable Audio

The Odd Purgatory of My Personal Perception: Little Portraits by Keith Hamilton CobbThese 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.

Bless’d be.

 

Audio Excerpt from the story, God’s Children

 

 

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One Night Only

September 30, 2015.  We do an evening hosted by the students at Rider University

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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…

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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.

In performance, Rider University, September 30, 2015

In performance, Rider University, September 30, 2015

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.

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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…

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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!

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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 taking the play to where the people are.

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July and August, 2015, American Moor in The Nation’s Capitol

In performance:  Anacostia Playhouse

In performance: Anacostia Playhouse

I am very late getting started here.Anacostia-Playhouseweb  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…

Paul Kwame Johnson (left), the director of the first five productions of American Moor, and Craig Wallace, director of the Anacostia Playhouse production.

Paul Kwame Johnson (left), the director of the first five productions of American Moor, and Craig Wallace, director of the Anacostia Playhouse production.

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.

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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 line 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.

IMG_6325webThe 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.

With students at The Kennedy Center

With students at The Kennedy Center

 

With teaching artist/directors Michael Rau (left) and Will Davis

With teaching artist/directors Michael Rau (left) and Will Davis

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Kennedy Center Summer Directing Intensive

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.

Post_performance discussion with Michael Witmore, director of The Folger Shakespeare Library

Post_performance discussion with Michael Witmore, director of The Folger Shakespeare Library

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.

Late night with some of the actors and theatre professionals from Galvanize

Late night with some of the actors and theatre professionals from Galvanize DC

Thembi Duncan, DC teaching artist

Thembi Duncan, DC teaching artist

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.

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Two Weeks at The Wild Project

A Brief Diary of Phoenix Theatre Ensemble’s Production of American Moor

                                                            from the perspective of an American Moor

Opening Night of "American Moor" in New York 4/21/15

Opening Night of “American Moor” in New York 4/21/15

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 people’s 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 hear 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 I 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?”  
     ”No.”  
     ”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.”

Monday, 4/20
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 knowing 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.
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Tuesday, 4/21
Opening Night
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. MoorOpenTableauWebIf 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 you 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’s not getting across; that it’s 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.  MoorOpenParty1WebIn 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.

Josh Tyson who enacted the role of the director.

Josh Tyson who enacted the role of the director.

It never means that I am not being an adequate vehicle for the conveyance of this particular poetry.

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w/ Kevin E. Taylor and a group of Brothers that he brought from Newark.

Brent Buell, my first creative consultant on this work.

Brent Buell, my first creative consultant on this work.

Wednesday, 4/22
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…

Thursday, 4/23
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.

Friday, 4/24
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 or 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.”

Saturday, 4/25
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…

Post-show with, from lft, Dr. Akil Khalfani, Phoenix Artistic director, Elise Stone, and director Paul Kwame Johnson

Post-show with, from lft, Dr. Akil Khalfani, Phoenix Artistic director, Elise Stone, and director Paul Kwame Johnson

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.

Second Week

Tuesday, 5/5
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…

Wednesday, 5/6  11049635_378676378988575_8681463549536942497_n
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.

Dr. Daniel Omotosho Black, author of Perfect Peace.

Dr. Daniel Omotosho Black, author of Perfect Peace.

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.

Thursday, 5/7
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…

Friday, 5/8
11067829_379262262263320_7344456954256998116_nThis 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.

Dan Lehrecke at the camera, and Elise Stone, and Josh Tyson

Dan Lehrecke at the camera, and Elise Stone, and Josh Tyson

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.

Saturday, 5/9
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.

Elise Stone, Kevin E. Taylor, and Josh Tyson

Elise Stone, Kevin E. Taylor, and Josh Tyson

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.

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Sunday, 5/10
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.21884_379506082238938_7028183891345871003_n

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.

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American Moor and Filmmaker, Bobby Razak, and Me

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.

Waiting on magic to happen.  Luna Stage 2/27/15

All about the coffee… Waiting on magic to happen. Luna Stage 2/27/15

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.

You can also find him on Twitter: @bobbyrazak
Or check out his work at:
http://bobbyrazakmovies.com
or
YouTube.com/bobbyrazak

 

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A Power Outage at University of Maryland!

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.

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Interview w/ Andaiye Taylor / Brick City Live

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ONE NIGHT ONLY at The University of Maryland

A Special Event!!

Sponsored by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at The University of Maryland.

UMD Flyer

 

 

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.

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Moor on Manhattan

PhoenixMoor Flyer

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.

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Powerful Return Performance Weekend at Luna Stage

I’ve always got to start with thanks…

It was not the easiest weekend to come out to the theatre.  There was snow… lots of it…  But many made it to Luna Stage just the same, and stayed to share their thoughts and perceptions at the latest incarnation of this work, “American Moor.”

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Opening tableau, “American Moor” at Luna Stage 2/27/15

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 Razak and I, November 2009

Film maker, Bobby Razak and I, November 2009

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…

Filming post-performance, day 3 of the Luna Weekend.  Final thoughts and perceptions for camera...

Filming post-performance, day 3 of the Luna Weekend. Final thoughts and perceptions for camera…

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“American Moor” performance Q&A at Luna Stage 3/1/15

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" post-show audience interaction 2/28/15.

“American Moor” post-show audience interaction 2/28/15.

“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…

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Returning to Luna Stage in February!!

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.

LUNA STAGE: 555 VALLEY ROAD, WEST ORANGE, NJ

AmericanMoorFlyerWeb

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