A man of a certain age and a certain race arrives to audition for the role of a man of a certain age and a certain race. You’d think it was a slam/dunk, so to speak, and yet…
Keith Hamilton Cobb is that man, auditioning for the role of Shakespeare’s Othello. Classically trained and immensely talented, Cobb is both operatic and disarming. As he takes us through his experience of Acting While Being Black, he explores the complex terrain of preconception and stereotype that plagues the African American man. It’s an intense performance that at times leads you to hold your breath, as you await Cobb’s next thought, his next Shakespearean monologue, his next revelation.
Against Wilson Chin’s narrative setting of the brick walls and folding chairs of a rehearsal hall framed by two crumbing Ionic columns, one topped with the regal image of a winged lion, Alan C. Edwards’ dramatic lighting takes us from the mundane audition space to Cobb’s inner monologue to the theatrical stage in an instant.
Throughout these changes, Cobb explores the role of actor as vessel, template and lens. Arguing what should, honestly, be obvious, Cobb asks a simple question: An African American is the ultimate exemplar of an American Othello, so why aren’t we taking advantage of this opportunity for insight?
As I write this I cannot but be guilty of the central issue in American Moor: “whitesplaining.” That is, white directors guiding black actors in the interpretation of a life experience they themselves cannot fathom. As a woman, I can empathize. One does tire of hearing some men who cannot resist mansplaining what you just said (and taking credit for it.) And then there’s the Danger of the Raised Voice. An African American risks being “The Angry Black Man” and women risk being the “The Bitch.”
Thus, when this African American actor arrives to audition he runs straight into whitesplaining. Even if he is as well-meaning as one would hope, the white Director will inevitably miss the point, resistant to comprehending both the magnificence and the delicate humanity of an unabashedly powerful, black man. We live in a world in which a black man’s self-possession is seen as a weakness, yet his intense emotion a threat. The only ‘acceptable’ way to live his blackness onstage (and off) is for him always to be the suppliant.
In this Red Bull Theater production of American Moor at the Cherry Lane Theatre, the character of the director equates Othello to, of all people, the astronaut several years ago who in her fanatical ‘devotion’ to her lover drove across the country to confront him. To avoid stopping along the way she wore an adult diaper. It is as comical a comparison as it is shocking. Let’s see, the powerful warrior prince Othello, and a person sitting in her own urine for hours on end. Wow. Just wow.
American Moor offers so much to unpack. Cobb runs through every known emotion to convey the complexity of his life as a human and an actor, revealing the conflict between acceptable truth and real truth.
In opening a window into his world, as an African American human and African American actor, Cobb opens a door for us to gain a greater understanding, to experience more thrilling theatre. Even if we as individual audience members only make one small step to the threshold, it would be a great improvement. Take this giant leap with Cobb. It’s worth every gripping moment.
(Photo by Carol Rosegg)
"For the rest of Mr. Cobb’s fascinating but uneven play, which opened on Sunday at the Cherry Lane Theater, the thick racial tension of that premise predominates. It’s about performing Othello but also, in a way, about being Othello: a black man trying to find a path to excellence in a society anxious to keep him in his place."
Jesse Green for New York Times
"What’s it like for a female actor to be directed by a man? Or a gay actor to be directed by a straight? Keith Hamilton Cobb examines his decades-long career as an African-American actor being directed by white men. The result is his fiery new meltdown of a play, American Moor, which opened Sunday at the Cherry Lane Theatre and presented by the Red Bull Theater."
Robert Hofler for The Wrap