Was my face red. Watching Keith Hamilton Cobb’s mighty American Moor, I flushed scarlet with the knowledge of the accidental racism of my asking African American actors through the years “Do you aspire to play Othello in your career?” or thinking I was complimenting them with “You’d make a great Othello.”
Woo, I might as well be asking Latino and Hispanic actors if their career high is Anita in West Side Story or an Asian actor if O-Lan in The Good Earth is a pinnacle role.
Realization that you’re a jerk is never pretty, but getting schooled about Othello—whom he calls “The Big O”–and race in America is a powerful experience. You squirm and are illuminated.
Keith Hamilton Cobb’s solo play about his insights and experiences with the role of Othello is confrontational in a good way. It forces you think about Shakespeare and how it is performed in America, about the “real” Othello and how comfortable most theater people are with stereotypes and perceived truths about African Americans.
These insights are often painful, but any discomfort is leavened by Cobb’s cerebral, emotional, life-long love affair with Shakespeare’s language. Cobb’s been drunk on the stuff for decades and not only feels him, but wants audiences to experience what he feels saying Shakespeare’s words.
Heady aspirations, but when you hear Cobb reciting lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, and even a major source of conflict, Othello, you are witnessing a man in love—caressing the couplets, joyfully unraveling the tangled limbs of wordplay, embracing the potent truth of every line. His classical diction is aural butter.
Because his righteous anger comes from such great love, you are drawn to American Moor and eager for Cobb to have his say. And he has a lot to unload, starting with white directors who insist they “know” Shakespeare and what he would like and wouldn’t like as if they were there 450 years ago lacing up his bodkin.
July 15 – August 16
2020 Shannon Place SE
1 hour, 20 minutes with no intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
In the play, Cobb goes through an audition, “a shameful and broken process” under the best of circumstances but particularly harrowing when a white theater director asks “a large black man if he has any questions about playing a large black man.”
Cobb has plenty of ideas about Othello’s inner workings and motivations, which he shares privately with the audience. From the perspective of privilege, the director tells Cobb how he wants Othello to be played, as an overblown, operatic man of color “putting on a show” for the white Senate.
You can imagine how that goes over. Cobb struggles to keep things professional, but his love of Shakespeare, his rage at the system and the heartbreaking financial and aesthetic realities of contemporary regional theater all spill over and he goes, well, all Othello on the director.
It’s quite a sight to behold—no doubt good for the psyche, if not for the resume.
Watching this outpouring of love, grief and rage puts me in mind of another Big O—President Obama.
Cobb’s angry, bitterly funny recounting of white privilege and blithe, ingrained American racism is ostensibly about Othello and Shakespeare, but squint a little and he could be describing the Obama presidency, where the holder of the highest position in the land is routinely maligned, misunderstood and disrespected.
The parallels are breathtaking between an African American actor, a much-misinterpreted classical role and a president whose tenure has been marked by an appalling lack of respect because of the color of his skin. Cobb, Othello, Obama just want to be the men they are meant to be. Why can’t we let them?
American Moor . written and performed by Keith Hamilton Cobb . Directed by Craig Wallace . presented by Anacostia Playhouse . reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.