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An Extraordinary Thing Happened at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London

London, 8/12/2018…

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Josh Tyson, director Kim Weild, and me…

I had only been through once, years ago, doing a fan appearance for Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda.  And that had been for no more than a couple of days.  I had never played on any of its stages, much less a stage built from a 17th century design and lit by candles in six chandeliers hung from the ceiling.  It was certainly nowhere that I had ever envisioned performing American Moor.  But there we were, with a rapt British audience of educators, scholars, actors, and laypeople.  Odd…  Wonderful, but odd…  Because I suppose that this stop on the Five Destination/Five Presentation 2018/19 performance arc of American Moor never would have happened had it not been for the Shakespeare and Race Festival that The Globe Theatre was convening, and the urging of The Folger Shakespeare Library who partnered with The Globe on the event.  Given the response to the performance — given the response to every single performance of American Moor that has ever been done anywhere —  one would think it should be a whole lot easier to hand one’s good works to the world.  But the fact remains, we would not have been on THAT stage with THIS  show, ever…  But we were…

PHOTO-2018-08-16-18-42-19It’s quite an arc, is it not, beginning in a lecture hall on the campus of Westchester Community College?   There is for me a powerful symbolism in landing upon the Sam Wanamaker stage, and playing a play about American perspectives on Shakespeare through the instrument of a black American Shakespearean.  Of course, the play is about much more than that with Shakespeare, Othello, and me as its vehicles.  And of course, we know by now that no one persuasion of human being responds to this work; that it is in fact about  a set of human conditions that are no less present in the UK than they are in the United States.  Whether one suffers under those conditions, or benefits from them, all can recognize that the play is talking about them.  All that really surprised me was this moment, in this theatre, in the arc of history, for Shakespeare and me.

_CD_4490_editThe Jacobean stage, with its candlelight and its seating arrangement offered us some challenges that resulted in some changes to how the play was played.  We could not hide the director.  Unlike a contemporary spaces there was no control booth where the actor could stand and view the action on stage, speaking his lines from there so that they came across to the audience as an omnipresent, disembodied voice, as the role had been originally conceived and written.  We were able to experiment with the  director’s actual presence in the audience during two performance at Luna Stage Theatre Company immediately before flying for London, so we weren’t totally unprepared, and it worked well in both venues.  What we lost, however, was the voice as coming from within us and also without, from somewhere and nowhere; the voice born of cultural norms and narratives that no one can pin point and tell to shut up because it is as deniable as it is present.  PHOTO-2018-08-16-18-38-12-2What we gained was the audience being able to make a tangible distinction between the players.  It took the argument out of the abstract.  Some called that a positive dramatic shift.  Others — and I think I — called it reductive. But I don’t know.  That IS what this #MakingTheMoor hashtag is all about; what this Five Destination/Five Presentation adventure is supposed to find us.  What works best?  What creates the maximum impact?  What tells the entirety of the tale most authentically?

Something else that I consider a net gain was the audience presence in seating galleries on either side of the stage itself and rising up a second story above the stage floor.  It was a small stage, maybe 15 feet or so across.  Given the intimate audience interaction that the play seeks, the Wanamaker configuration created a pressure cooker environment that upped the energy, allowing me true face to face communion with spectators.  While the play ultimately wants lighting and scenic values, I would seek the intimacy of houses like this where audiences draw close to share in what is essentially a communal experience.

PHOTO-2018-08-16-18-40-32-8The Wanamaker and Luna Stage were both “stand on the stage and speak” performances.  The Wanamaker had its atmosphere lent by candlelight, but there were no lighting effects or stage pieces to support the performance as was so in Boston, and at the Signature Theatre Center presentation in October 2018..  The script had to support itself.  The great thing is that it can.  It always does.  Still, it has been evolving too, ever tighter, ever more succinct.  These growing pains are difficult.  There will need to be in the published academic version of the text a section for pages excised from the playing script that are not gone because they are not good, but because the matters upon which they treat are too big and impossibly complex to be made to fit.  No part of this is easy, this play, the playing, the producing, the selling, or the issues around which the narrative revolves.  But it is profoundly important, “if I do say so my damn self,” like conversations that continue about race and cultural responsibility in America and in the UK, and in the rest of the world.

PHOTO-2018-08-16-18-40-32-5There is a part being played here that not enough people know about yet.  We saw that when we played the Wanamaker playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe, London, and talk of the performance fueled the conference for the week to follow.  The English audience heard and spoke back to the play with an intensity that rivaled any of our American audiences to date.  What were they hearing?  And what would they have not heard had we not had the opportunity to present this to them.PHOTO-2018-08-16-18-44-16-9

Now…  onto the third destination, four performances on the campus of Mount Holyoke College and the two weeks of programming that surround them. We’ll see what changes. We’re showing up.  “Mercenary actors, mercenary soldiers, that’s what we all do, and feel the holy pleasure of God in the act.”

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FIVE DESTINATIONS / FIVE PRESENTATIONS

#MakingTheMoor Embarking on Nine Months
of American Moor in The NorthEast and London

I write this just a week or two away from returning to the stage with this theatre work of mine that has been silent for nearly a year.  After garnering major honors for our 2017 Boston production, we are back at it, creatively insatiable and chronically dissatisfied.  The play in Boston said everything that the play should say, if indeed it should “say” anything.  It’s not about sending messages, but about presenting truths, I think, and sharing them with audiences who may not have ever considered those same facts in the way that you do.  I think we did that to great success.  It might not quite have looked exactly how we, the creative team would most have liked it to look.  But we’re never quite sure.  It is the audiences that have come out to experience the play in every city, their responses, their emotional engagement that continue to shape the look of this play, a piece of theatre so much about all of us, and what we are living right now.AM2018 Icon_2

FIVE DESTINATIONS / FIVE PRESENTATION

AUGUST 7TH AND 8TH:  Luna Stage Theatre, West Orange, NJ
Tickets Available Now!!

AUGUST 12TH:  Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London, UK
Tickets Available Now!!

NOVEMBER 8TH – 10TH:  Alice Withington Rooke Theatre, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA

JANUARY 3 – FEBRUARY 3:  The Anacostia Playhouse, Washington, DC

APRIL 10 – 21:  Arts Emerson, Robert J. Orchard Theatre, Paramount Center, Boston, MA
Tickets Available Now!!

Our presentation on the set of Susan-Lori Parks’ Fucking A at the Signature Theatre Center in Manhattan last October made us hungry for a set.  We had been doing American Moor on bare stages everywhere we went.  That’s more or less how the show was written to be played.  IMG_9976But in order to be granted the opportunity to present the work to a Manhattan audience at a central venue, we had to agree to put it up in a single afternoon, and to work on the set that existed in the space at the time we occupied it.  We had to get in, light, stage, rehearse, and perform the show for audience twice in a single day.  The process, as processes under pressure often do, lead to some remarkable discovery.  The set, that was altogether foreign to the play we were presenting, focused the work in ways that we had not expected, for us, and we think for our audiences as well.  We have been on the hunt for our definitive set and lighting design ever since, and hoping to discover it somewhere among these many dates ahead.  But again, it was the audience response that indicated most strongly to us that something had shifted.  They experienced the performance as if the set had been our intention all along.  Those who had seen the show before expressed how it made a particular new sort of sense played there.

We start with nothing again.  At Luna Stage in New Jersey, we put the play on its feet again and prepare it for the London engagement.  We are on another bare stage, with our audience who will inform us with their reactions and interactions what’s still working… and what needs work…  In London, at Shakespeare’s Globe as part of the Shakespeare and Race Festival, the unadorned stage of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse will again give rise to innovation.  American Moor by candlelight in a Jacobean Indoor Theatre??!!  AR-701209951.jpg&updated=201401201732&MaxW=800&maxH=800&noborderWhat an odyssey that promises to be!!  And this, a totally new audience, with perhaps a different set of sensibilities altogether, experiencing the matters of the play through their British perspective of Shakespeare, race, and America.  They are bound to have something to say, and we are eager to hear it.

Back in The States all bets are off.  We do a two-week residency and five performances on the campus of Mount Holyoke College, engaging with the students there and on the sister campuses of UMass and Amherst.  The college engagement is a thing unto itself, unlike anywhere else we perform, or any other work we engage in. While we are moving more and more into the commercial arena, the communion and communication with students in and around this play has always been, and will continue to be vibrant, revelatory, and rewarding.

A return to Washington DC follows.  The Anacostia Playhouse was the venue in the summer of 2015, where the play first came to the attention of the Folger Shakespeare Library, and the library has been a staunch supporter of the development and exposure of the work ever since.  So this will be something of a homecoming in the new year.  Much to celebrate, and all of the DC audience that missed the experience the first time around.

The spring of 2019 brings us back to Boston.  We really need to call that a second homecoming, because it is returning to the city that embraced the work with passion in the summer of 2017, bestowing upon us two IRNE Awards and an Elliot Norton Award.  In the hands of our hosts Arts Emerson in the beautiful Robert Orchard Theatre of the Paramount Center, we will most certainly have arrived somewhere, perhaps with all the pieces in place that we have been searching for, perhaps not, but again, letting the wider Boston audience come and take part in the conversation that so many are having with us.  What is the role of a lifetime?  What is the role of a life?

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