Actor Keith Hamilton Cobb website

Tag Archives: Black Theatre



American Moor in Boston

A Turning Point
The Boston Production,
Summer 2017

Photo: Chris Lang

Photo: Chris Lang

The production of American Moor that ran at The Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theatre from July 20th through August 12, 2017 was the longest run of the play in performance since its inception nearly five years ago. It was a joint production by a small company in residence at the Boston Center for the Arts, OWI (Bureau of Theatre), and New York based Phoenix Theatre Ensemble. The house was a 150 seat black box, and Boston… was Boston…

The last time I’d played this city was 1992. It was with The Huntington Theatre Company playing Arviragus in the Larry Carpenter production of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline.

In the 1992 production of Cymbeline at The Huntington Theatre Company w/ Jack Aronson (center) and Matthew Loney (right)

In the 1992 production of Cymbeline at The Huntington Theatre Company, Boston, w/ Jack Aronson (center) and Matthew Loney (right)

It was a different city then… That that I was able to see of it this time around – so much of my time was spent cranking out the one-man performance every night – had changed drastically.  I’m sure that is the dynamic with all major American cities. There always seems to be more high end housing, which would lead one to believe that there are more and more people with a ton of money. And yet, somehow, theatre continues to struggle. At least my theatre did. Not that we were not a success in Boston, the responses were glowing. But no one made any money, and this is the glaring irony of the American Theatre. It can’t be about money.  Well… I mean, it can be, but when it is, it most often isn’t very good, or very important.  Money, the larger sums of it, generally gets spent on things that are somewhat assured to make even greater sums of it.  Taking care of one another is not a for-profit venture.  Subsidizing things that are for the general health of the populace at large is considered a bad bet.  But more on that later.

W/ the creative team, actor, stage manager, dramaturg, sound designer.

w/ the creative team, actor, stage manager, dramaturg, sound designer

Regardless, this was a huge step in the development of this work. We were, for the first time, able to more fully (though not fully enough) explore aspects of set, and lighting, and within that exploration discover moments of on-stage life and text that we had not known were there. When I say “we” I mean my director, Kim Weild and I.  She has been guiding the development of this piece of theatre for the past two years.

And American Moor is a play about so many things. I don’t doubt we will still be discovering new things a year from now. In the post-performance discussions that we held twice a week, there were always new insights to be mined. No two people respond to this play in the same way. It is always a deeply personal journey for every individual, which speaks, I think, to a universality of theme.

w/ assistant director, Miranda Haymon

w/ assistant director, Miranda Haymon

Through the interactions with audience we have found that this play about race is not a play about race at all if one is inclined to see beyond the obvious.  I find myself saying more and more often to anyone who will listen that the internal problems America is faced with are not a lot of different things.  It’s one big thing with all the little things being manifestations of it.  The unchanging fundamental nature of the human animal is at the root of all our cultural dysfunction.  All of it, no matter what form it takes.  The behaviors to which we all, to one extent or another, succumb are inherent to the species.  Someone called the play “self-indulgent…”  But how does one express the self without indulging the self?  And further, in making such a comment, isn’t one, in essence, saying, I want to indulge myself by telling you that you are indulging yourself…”???  That which perpetually percolates in the minds of men/women, the primitive animals, above all is ego and fear, the one is the definer, the other is the arbiter of ALL that is defined.  I challenge anyone to show me that this is not so.  And all of our cultural dysfunction arises from this simple truth.  Those who are aware of this within themselves tend to find empathy with the characters in the play, and with others outside of their own societal situation.  Those who are not tend to identify, as ego does, with one side or the other of the surface argument, and with any that see it as they do, while ignoring, or missing altogether, the myriad manifestations of their fear-based culture that lie beneath it.  They, ironically, literally become the embodiment of the issue being portrayed on stage; the inability to interact beyond personal perspective…  To understand this, however, you’ll have to see it.

Here we are again. From left: Andrew Duncan Will, Sound Designer, Kim Weild, Director, Matt Arnold, Actor, Shaoul Rick Chason, Dramaturg, Me, and Caleb Spivey, Stage Manager

Here we are again. From left: Andrew Duncan Will, Sound Designer, Kim Weild, Director, Matt Arnold, Actor, Shaoul Rick Chason, Dramaturg, Me, and Caleb Spivey, Stage Manager

If you had seen the Boston production from where I stood, you would have experienced not only the struggle of the actor as portrayed on-stage, but as the actor himself, in calorie deficit, lacking sleep, body-misalignment, and big fat rats in my dressing room. I don’t suppose I’m looking for sympathy. I am however hoping for empathy, just like the character in the play…  I would like people to understand the sheer magnitude of the gap between a stack of stellar reviews and all that needs to be done, dealt with, and endured to get them because of the culture’s general fear-driven inability to care for the arts. I’d like people to know that making theatre is very hard, and that there is no reason for anyone who does it to submit to that level of self-abuse except for an unflagging belief in humanity and the desire to nourish and nurture it, even while having to perpetually experience and acknowledge that humanity generally sucks…

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Clockwise from top left: director, Kim Weild, stage manager, Caleb Spivey, actor, Matt Arnold outside The Plaza Theatre — Kim Weild and I with NY producers, Craig Smith and Elise Stone — our production poster — in front of our lobby display created by our dramaturg, Shaoul Rick Chason

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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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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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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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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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