Keith Hamilton Cobb in ‘American Moor. (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
By Samuel L. Leiter
Keith Hamilton Cobb is black, 6’ 4”, handsome, built like a boxer and gifted with a rich, resonant voice. He’s the kind of man, who, if encountered anywhere but in a theatre, would make you feel that he must be an actor. He says that 30 years ago, “I wanted to be an actor. What I mean to say is, I was an actor, you know, like somebody is gay I am an actor. It was never a choice.” You’d also like to think him ideal casting for Othello. On the basis of the burningly provocative American Moor, which he wrote and first performed in 2013, however, his presumably autobiographical character, Keith, would find such an idea both the bane and boon of his existence.
American Moor, most of which confronts racial issues in the casting and interpretation of Othello, is designed to represent Cobb’s audition for the white director of a regional production. Enacted on Wilson Chin’s essentially bare stage, furnished with a few chairs, technical instruments, a standing column (topped by the Lion of St. Mark), and a fallen one, the play replicates the essential format of an audition. Cobb, deeply invested, reads segments of Othello—as well as bits from other Shakespearean roles, including Titania and Hamlet—with occasional comments from and discussion with the innocuous (but patient) director (Josh Tyson), seated in the house.
It’s also a journey into Cobb’s psyche as he drifts from the audition per se into a tortured, almost stream-of-consciousness disquisition, shared directly with the audience, of his feelings about being an American black man and actor, white perceptions of black characters, and a remarkably detailed disquisition on Othello vis à vis his interpretation based on seeing the role through his own experience. The director hears none of this until, ultimately, Cobb’s thoughts—exquisitely enhanced by Alan C. Edwards’s sensitive lighting—bleed into his spoken words.
Regardless of Othello’s being a 16th-century Moor living in Venice, and the (unmentioned) reams of scholarship questioning his ethnicity, American Moor, smartly directed by Kim Weild, accepts unquestionably that Othello shares Cobb’s racial background, and that only actors such as he could possibly understand this mighty general’s psychological and emotional agitations.
Speaking with ardent, even furious, authenticity, the actor uses an unusual mixture of ordinary discourse, earthy street talk, and polysyllabic, self-consciously polished rhetoric. He’s as likely to follow a Shakespearean insult by saying “How many times have you wanted to say some shit like that about a motherfucker” as to explain a passage using professorial syntax.
This is an actor who could, especially in the colorblind world of contemporary classical theatre, play any leading role without batting an eye, whether it be Macbeth, Coriolanus, or Lear. The teachers and directors he references, however, see him only through the prism of his complexion. “Pick something you might reasonably play,” he’s told. The dice often seem a bit loaded to justify Cobb’s anger, frustration, and insights.
But it’s Cobb’s love-hate relationship with Othello, and what he perceives to be the director’s benignly intended but misguided advice, that really get him going. Cobb has much to unpack, like his expostulations on acting; Shakespeare’s language; the uniqueness of his racial qualities for playing Shakespeare; his being boxed in by his size and color; the presumption of those who explain Shakespeare as if they knew him personally; the director’s suggesting an equivalency between a news story about a female astronaut’s jealous behavior and that of Othello; and many other things.
Most emphatically, however, is the actor’s desperate desire for a chance to do Othello as he lives and breathes him. That, of course, isn’t typically how the hierarchy of director-centered production works.
Fascinatingly, his audition, in which he’s forced to parry the intentions of a white director, and his struggle to refrain from shouting what he’s thinking (he wants the job, obviously), reflects the paradigm he sees in Othello. This is especially pertinent to Othello’s speech before the Senate, where, as Cobb sees it, the character’s need to be polite conflicts with his emotional turmoil at being subjected to the experience.
Cobb refers to the “five minutes” of his audition, but the actual time spent (when he’s not internally fuming) talking with the director and demonstrating his impressive chops, takes more stage time than that. Regardless, if only a smidgen of what’s going on inside him were to emerge during the three-week rehearsal period, and the director was willing to listen, it might provide one hell of a production. Given what we see of this director, though, one can be forgiven for imagining how quickly this Othello would be putting out its lights, not just Desdemona’s. And that would be the real tragedy.
Red Bull Theater at Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce St., NYC
Through October 5
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. Sam, a Drama Desk voter, has written and/or edited nearly 30 books on Japanese theater, New York theatre, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. His reviews for 2012-2013 and 2014-2015 are available in the Theatre’s Leiter Side series on Amazon.com.For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side, Theater Pizzazz, and Theater Life.