Keith Hamilton Cobb has written a thrilling part for himself in American Moor, a powerful look at Shakespeare, Othello, and the plight of black actors trying to pursue their craft with honesty. Cobb himself stars, although his character in the script is called the Actor. The play arrives at a moment when race and white privilege dominate the zeitgeist. Some of the material is familiar, but much is unique and insightful.
On an almost bare stage, furnished by Wilson Chin with only four or five chairs, plus a towering column with a winged lion at the top, and a second one, toppled over (make of those symbols what you will), Cobb begins by talking about his childhood and his discovery of Shakespeare and the love of the language:
I realized that these characters … had this depthless reservoir of emotion already roiling around within them, and whenever they but opened their mouths they couldn’t help but give voice to even the most vile of pronouncements in the most beautiful of ways.
The imposing Cobb is eloquent, snide, passionate, and serious as he tells the Actor’s story (it’s his, of course), and he dives not only into Othello. In school he wanted to play Titania, but his counselor steered him toward, of course, Othello. His delivery of the “forgeries of jealousy speech” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream is masterly. It’s the speech that predicts climate change caused by the feud of Oberon and Titania:
Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which falling in the land
Have every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents...
Still, the Actor himself speaks in a less elevated language, with a wicked sense of humor:
I got me a little theory about the poetry. Now, it seems to me that too many of these silly, cerebral fucks who get to do this shit are more interested in starin’ downstage and recitin’ some poem to the audience like they was deliverin’ the fuckin’ Gettysburg Address than they are in talkin’ to the person standin’ on stage with them. The poetry will take care of itself, thank you very much.
Before long, the Actor is facing the Director, an oracular white guy named Michael (Josh Tyson), and auditioning for, as the director calls it, “The Big O.” Cobb/The Actor listens to the director but thinks to himself: “‘The Big O?’ Who says that?”
The play toggles between the interaction with the Director and the Actor’s mental commentary. The latter scorns the guidance of a man who, he pointedly believes, can have no understanding of the experience of being black. “[A] little white man is asking me if I have any questions about being a large black man, enacting the role of a large black man in a famous Shakespeare play about a large black man.”
Watching Cobb makes it clear that he has the goods to play Othello. Strangely, his biography doesn’t list it, although he’s been Theseus and Oberon, Julius Caesar and Aufidius. Is the spur for this play his failure to be cast in the role? If so, what a missed opportunity; he has canny observations to share:
I know that Brabantio invited Othello to his house again and again because it was a novelty for him to host the important black general. I’m sure Colin Powell has had to deal with this sort’a stupid shit too.
Still, Cobb skirts a touchy issue. “You ain’t gotta pick me,” he thinks as he hears the director. “But you’re gonna respect that walkin’ through that door, purely by virtue of being born black in America, I know more about who this dude is than any graduate program could ever teach you.” The flip side of that declaration would be that only a white actor can understand the privilege and see the feasible path to power that’s open to Macbeth and Richard III. It’s a question that one would love to discuss with Cobb, but you’d balk at bringing it up with a fiery 6-foot-4 actor who looks like a wrestling champion.
Eventually the Actor speaks his mind, and what a powerful speech it is! One is likely to forget that Kim Weild is credited as director of this unassuming production. Her sure hand makes it seem like an unmediated look at a terrific performer sharing his passion and thoughts about his profession and life. Like Bill Irwin’s play about experiencing Beckett last year, Cobb’s work is essential for theater lovers.
The Red Bull Theater’s production of American Moor runs through Oct. 5 at the Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce St.). Evening performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m.; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and information, call (212) 352-3101 or visit redbulltheater.com.