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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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A Southland Premiere

Southern Shakespeare Company and Florida A&M University Collaborate to Host Actor and Director and American Moor for a Week: 1/9-1/13/17

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This experiment in community engagement was a first for American Moor AND for my director, Kim Weild and me.  Southern Shakespeare Company is a small Shakespeare Company in Tallahassee, Florida with a focus on education.  Not so small it seems, however, to stop them from taking an interest in American Moor, and rallying the resources to bring us to Florida for a week of work.

With the FAMU Essential Theatre students

With the FAMU Essential Theatre students

Their partners in this endeavor were several.  Most prominently Florida A&M University played host to our rehearsals and performances in their Lee Hall Auditorium.  While there we met and worked with college students from FAMU’s Essential Theatre Program, as well as with eleven-, twelve-, and thirteen-year-olds from Southern Shakespeare’s youth company called The Bardlings.  We also met some wonderful people in the greater Tallahassee community when we attended an event hosted by Village Square, a non-partisan public educational forum.  Their event was called “Created Equal,” and sought to stimulate constructive dialogue around matters of race and race relations.  We were busy…

The production team: (from left) director Kim Weild; stage tech - Felix, Anitra, and Nile, and publicist Pamela Daniels in front.

The production team: (from left) director Kim Weild; stage tech – Felix Anitra, and Nile; (front) publicist Pamela Daniels.

We had not had a concerted period of rehearsal for quite some time.  Most of the recent outings for American Moor have been of the one-off model, where we quickly mount the show in a venue, do it, and go home.  This was an experiment in residence, where we had several days to work, eat, drink, acquaint ourselves, and communicate with smart, engaging, theatre-loving people who believed in the work of this play as much as we did and do.

We played two performances to houses of about 500 people each night.  Even this many years in, the post-performance responses from always diverse audience members astound me.
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Reception at Meek-Eaton Black Archives

Reception at Meek-Eaton Black Archives

There is always some perspective or thought that someone will share that I’ve never heard before.  Each new endeavor brings discovery.

Here are as many pictures from the week as it makes any kind of sense to stuff into a single blog post.  There really isn’t a whole lot else to say but “Thank you.”

From left, Southern Shakespeare Company Executive Director, Laura Johnson, me, and director Kim Weild at Village Square's "Created Equal" event.

At Village Square’s “Created Equal” event: (from left) Southern Shakespeare Company Executive Director Laura Johnson, me, and director Kim Weild.

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With noted writer and attorney, Chuck Hobbs, on stage at “Created Equal,” the Village Square event in Tallahassee.

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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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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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