ADVERTISING AT CURTAINUP
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Review
The message isn't really original but it rings true: Shakespeare belongs to everybody, including Black American actors who are hoping to have a stab at performing this or that coveted role from the Bard's canon.
The play at first seems to be an extended riff of an Actor (Cobb) in his 50s, tracing his career from his college days to the present. The Actor is expressing his chagrin at the racial prejudice that he's encountered in every nook and cranny of the theater community. Walking that tightrope between paying homage to his college teachers (they did, after all, open his eyes to the "depthless emotions" of the Bard's characters!) and critiquing them as stuffy, the veteran thesp attempts to sift the wheat from the chaff during his formative acting years and his later experiences on the boards.
Humor and a dash of irreverence are peppered into the piece. Cobb's character refers to "The Method" as his meat and potatoes when training as an actor but that its exercises left him only "sleepy" and bored. But just when you think that this play might become a finger-pointing diatribe against the dons who rule at elite institutions, "a disembodied voice" interrupts the monologue and forces the lone Actor on stage to stop spewing forth his emotions. Indeed this voice turns out to be Michael Aaron Miller, the white Artistic Director of The Rep, who's asking the Actor, who he addresses as "Keith," to begin his audition. And, presto, the play morphs from a gripe session to the nitty-gritty of getting the gig. And the part in question here is no small potatoes but the Moor (the Artistic Director refers to it as the "Big O"). What follows is an artistic tug-of-war between Keith and Michael on whether Keith merits the role of Othello and will be headlining in The Rep's stage production of the great tragedy about jealousy.
Although it's easy to say that this is a vanity project for Cobb, and that the Actor Keith is his mouthpiece, American Moor breaks free of its creator via its sheer boldness and its honesty about the racial issues that still surface at theater venues in the Obama era. Cobb may well be the first Black American artist, in fact, to look Shakespeare's Moor squarely in his black eye—and then write about the minefield that a black actor must navigate before dramatizing the iconic role on stage.
As directed by Paul Kwame Johnson there's no frippery, furniture, or décor on stage. In fact, what the audience sees is a few folding chairs and a very worn copy of Othello that Keith uses at the audition. Shakespeare's language, and who actually deserves to speak it, is the ting here.
The ideal audience for American Moor are Shakespeare aficionados of any skin color. Obviously, Cobb (best-known for his role of Noah Keefer for ABC's All My Children) penned his play out of his belief that Black American actors need to step up to the idea that they can go toe-to toe with white actors for any Shakespearean role. But this is a work that can speak to everybody.
Note: Medea & The Furies is running in repertory with American Moor through May 3rd. Elise Stone, who performs the titular role, brings a furious new twist to Euripides' iconic character. This reviewer dropped in to see this reimagined Medea at The Wild Project one recent evening, and wasn't disappointed at all. The play has been stripped down to its bare essentials, but Stone gives an expansive interpretation to the vengeful Queen. Catch it before it closes!