Keith Hamilton Cobb (or at least, the actor he’s playing) isn’t exactly afraid that his director might accuse him of playing the race card when it comes to his opinions over Othello. Once that young, white director decided to stage that play, he says, the man picked up the entire “race deck.”
To be clear, most of this confrontation between actor and director is actually going on inside Cobb’s head. In the provocative, engrossing American Moor, Cobb, who also wrote the play, portrays a performer auditioning for the iconic role of Othello. The baggage that comes with playing the role is tremendous, and Cobb walks the audience through all the complicated emotions that come with such an audition. Resentment that so many inextricably link it with career triumph for any black actor, particularly a classical one. Disgust and embarrassment that one might associate him with the character’s own weakness and irrationality. An unexpected protectiveness towards Othello, which manifests itself into wanting to do the role justice and find a true understanding of his motivations.
The list goes on, and it’s an intensely powerful window into that actor’s mindset and journey. Just getting to listen to his internal monologue, as delivered by the magnetic and versatile Cobb, feels like both a great privilege and an uncomfortably voyeuristic experience . It’s impossible not to have empathy for his struggle as he walks us through a lifetime of being both underestimated and compelled to feel constantly restrained.
American Moor flashes back to the actor’s time as a student, where a teacher dismissively steers him away from the great soliloquies of characters like Romeo and Titania, urging him to tackle something he might “actually be cast as” (meanwhile, it’s a heartening middle finger to that instructor to see in the playbill that Cobb’s own resume spans from Tybalt to Oberon to Julius Caesar). The actor’s inner voice also tells us of his walk through life as a large, black man, constantly keeping his emotions in check and his voice even to avoid even the appearance of threatening anyone. Shakespeare becomes one of the few places he can use his true tone and express authentic emotions. And once Othello’s on the table, it’s all the more important that his collaborators “see me” and learn how his own background informs his interpretation of the role.
But of course, for every actor, there’s always a director, here played by Josh Tyson. His archetype is a familiar one, the kind that “picks up a play like it needs you.” Cobb already has us on his actor’s side once the director inevitably slips into lectures on “what Shakespeare was TRYING to say…” Cobb’s actor is all too familiar with people who ask him to “be open,” which always seems to translate into “see it my way.” Eventually, the inner voice we’ve been hearing bubbles over into reality, leading to a tense confrontation between actor and director at American Moor’s climax. Audience members will have to see the show to discover whether Cobb’s actor manages to change any minds or open any eyes during said confrontation.
But regardless of the play’s conclusion, they’ll undoubtedly find their own perspectives changed when they exit the theater.
American Moor by Keith Hamilton Cobb. Directed by Kim Weild. Assistant Director: Sisi Reid. Lighting Design: John Alexander. Stage Manager: Gillian Lelchuk. Assistant Stage Manager: Stanley Freeman. Technical Director: Demetrius Cole. With Keith Hamilton Cobb and Josh Tyson at Anacostia Playhouse.