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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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Talking Shakespeare, Race, and the Practical Humanities

The Thing is The Thing:  Acting – and not acting – Shakespeare while black.

This is a recording of a talk I was asked to deliver to open a two-day symposium entitled “Shakespeare, Race, and the Practical Humanities” on the campus of Lafayette College in Easton, PA on April 19th and 20th, 2017.

It will speak for itself…

 

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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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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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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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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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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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