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American Moor at University of Pittsburgh-Bradford 1/30-2/3/2017

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The week in Northern Pennsylvania was short; five working days really.  The University of Pittsburg-Bradford is a small, beautiful campus, and the week saw it covered in snow.  My host, Professor Kevin Ewert, who teaches theatre at the college, packed a great deal of interaction into that five days.  I met with theatre students, students from the African American Student Union,

At dinner with students of the African American Student Union.

At dinner with students of the African American Student Union.

and a highlight of the trip, I met with Professor Ewert’s Modern Black theatre class at FCI McKean Federal Correctional Facility, where his students share a session once a week with a class of incarcerated men, all of whom had read American Moor.  The feedback from this group was profound for me.  This was the first time that the play had been presented to any group, not as performance, but as literature.  The responses of the inmates were unique and immediate.  Of course they would see in the play what has always been there, but see it in the starkest of terms, particularly the elements focusing on social justice.

The theatre students were most interested in inquiring about what possibilities there were for an actual life in the theatre.  How does one pursue such a life and be reasonably comfortable in the belief that life will be livable.  Of course I’ve no answers for such concerns.  What young aspiring theatre people need to hear most, it seems to me, is that there isn’t much choice in the matter if you are innately driven to manifest your being through the arts.  You may be miserable attempting to eek out a living, but you’ll be equally miserable, if not more so, attempting to live a life in an albeit “safer” way, yet one that does not honor your soul-labeling.  In our interaction I did not get the sense that these students get to express much regarding their needs in art, or their fears born of those needs.  I was happy to have the time just to engage the discussion.  Communication is everything…

The students of the African American Student Union and I got to sit down to dinner, where I listened to them speak on the issues of Blackness and campus life that most concerned them.  They were also helpful in generating an audience for the Thursday night performance of American Moor.

One last group that I was given the opportunity to speak with was an Art Appreciation class.  This was a discussion that fed directly into many of the themes present in American Moor, most particularly ideas about who gets to make art, and who is to say what art is good, relevant, and/or worthy of attention.

Except for the inmates from McKean, of course, many from all of these groups were present for the performance.  I played to a house of about 75 people in a playing space uniquely configured for our production.  It was extremely intimate, with very little distance between me and the audience.  This always allows me the ability to truly include them in the journey happening on-stage.  Most often they seem happy to come along.  The post-performance discussion was, as always, alive with audience expressions of the experience.

Students prepare the intimate playing space for the performance.

Students prepare the intimate playing space for the performance.

UPitt-Bradford, unlike FAMU and Southern Shakespeare Company, did not have the wherewithal to bring in the community beyond the college in the same way.  The performance there was largely for students and faculty.  I always feel as though one week, though better than the one-off nature of a couple of days, is still sort of a one-off in itself.  I’m left wanting to do more, to explore more deeply, to ask and answer further questions, which are endless.  The first performance is always rough.  There needs to be at least two…  When the production finds a home of its own for an extended run, that problem will ostensibly be alleviated.  But there is stuff in the academic setting that I won’t find out in the world of the professional theatre.   I suppose it’s nothing for me to dwell on, but just to take each new endeavor as it comes and for what it presents.  I think lives were affected by the work of the week in Bradford, none the least of which was mine.

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Post-Performance Video of American Moor in Tallahassee

Just a few brief clips of the work in Tallahassee.

This post performance discussion was particularly informative for me, as I saw that the work is beginning to expose levels of itself that only audience experience can reveal.  Post-performance participants express connections to the play that are unique to them and to their experiences in life.  I respond to their questions, but mostly I want to just sit back and listen to their immediate responses to the play.  I learn so much just by hearing them talk.

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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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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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In Performance at Luna Stage Company

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We needed a place to keep this thing on its feet without letting the summer go by; a place to keep the words in my mouth, the thoughts and ideas, so important to me, expressing through my body…  The good people of Luna Stage Company have offered me that opportunity.  Not only will this be a place to perform, an intimate ninety seat black box space, but, as a theatre that supports and develops new works, it will also afford me an opportunity to grow the piece, and to discuss it with an audience of smart, theatre-minded people, giving me the much needed reactions and feedback that will carry the work on to the next place.

Perhaps YOU can attend…  All info for the purchasing of tickets, directions, etc. are available HERE.

Please come be part of the discussion.  I’ll see you there.

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“American Moor” in Performance: The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble’s Spring Rep, April, 2015

This Just In!

Anubis in The Jean Cocteau Repertory production of Jean Cocteau's The Infernal Machine.  Directed by Robert Hupp.  Costumes by Gregory Gale.

Anubis in The Jean Cocteau Repertory production of Jean Cocteau’s The Infernal Machine. Directed by Robert Hupp. Costumes by Gregory Gale. 

So what if it’s far enough away on the calendar to birth a baby?  It is one, really…  I’ve worked with the prolific and dedicated artists at The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble over many years.  In fact, their predecessor, The Jean Cocteau Repertory, was the theatre where I worked my very first professional theatre gig in New York, as Anubis, the Egyptian God of the Dead in Jean Cocteau’s “The Infernal Machine,” how many ages ago??!!  I mean look at that guy above!  What was he, twelve?!!

Then, only just three or four winters ago, I was on stage with several of these same astonishing actors again at a beautiful black box space on the lower West Side called The Wild Project in their production of Tom Stoppard’s “Hapgood.”

With Craig Smith, co-artistic director of The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, performing in The Phoenix production of Tom Stoppard's "Hapgood," directed by John Giampietro.

With Craig Smith, co-artistic director of The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, performing in The Phoenix production of Tom Stoppard’s “Hapgood,” directed by John Giampietro.

They are thespians of integrity and intelligence, and intention, and vision who have known me throughout my entire professional career.  They were there when it began. And so I am excited for their announcement today of their 2014-15 rep season, and honored that they have taken an interest in this new work of mine.  So, April of 2015 will be “American Moor’s” New York City debut!  It could not happen amongst a more nurturing company of artists.  You’ll see, if you check out the links, that it’s a short run, (we will be running April 21-25, 2015 and May 5-10, 2015) and The Wild Project, while it could not be more perfect for this piece of theatre, is a small space.  So I encourage everyone to put us on their calendar, and reserve their seats early!!  You can save money on tickets if you order early.  If you’re local to New York, you may want to buy a package so that you can experience all of the remarkable work that The Phoenix Theatre’s coming season has to offer you.  Have a look here for ticket packages and discounts.

For single tickets, you can still purchase in advance at the online box office here.

The season calendar can be found here.

I’m really extremely proud to be a point of focus in the life of this theatre company.  And I’m proud of this evolving, and I think rather important work.

Please follow the updates, and join us next spring.

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“American Moor” is written and performed by Keith Hamilton Cobb, and is being directed by Paul Kwame Johnson.

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