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A CurtainUp Review
American Moor

"Pick the actor that scares you the most" — Keith Hamilton Cobb —
American Moor
Keith Hamilton Cobb ( Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg)
There's a white man sitting in the audience taking notes at American Moor while he watches a black man audition for the role of Othello. Seated directly behind him is another white man with a notebook. Across the aisle, there's yet another white man scribbling on the pad in front of him.

Only the first of those matching figures will be there when you see American Moor — as I think you should — and he's the director of this particular production of Shakespeare's tragedy. Played with steely self-importance by Josh Tyson, the director keeps interrupting the actor onstage to tell him what Shakespeare intended when he wrote his most famous black character.

But the choice to seat the other white men with notepads around the director on press night seemed pointed, or, at the very least, accidentally thought-provoking. Seated inches behind the director who sees without listening and judges without hearing the case was a co-chief theater critic for a certain well-read daily newspaper.

And since I was the third man I mentioned, the one across the aisle, reviewing American Moor feels like a particularly thorny assignment. It is, after all, a play that's about white people — especially white Shakespeare fans — speaking very loudly about stories about which they're certain they know everything there is to know.

First and foremost among those stories, insists Keith Hamilton Cobb, the show's autobiographical writer and star, is Othello. For African American male actors, the question lurks around every corner: "When are you going to play Othello?" (The Director calls the role — get ready to cringe! — "The Big O.")

In a story Cobb relates early on, other Shakespeare characters speak to him and have always spoken to him more loudly: Titania, Queen of the Fairies. . .Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. . .Romeo, Juliet, either one. But an acting teacher suggests instead that he try out a monologue from Titus Andronicus' Aaron the Moor, Shakespeare's first character of color (who also happens to be a bloodthirsty, unrepentant villain).

Even today, in an era of supposed colorblind casting, for most African American actors, Othello looms largest. Actors like him, as Cobb explains, are beaten towards Othello and then into productions with misguided white directors uninterested in input from their actors— like the director at this particular audition whose inspiration for his production is the jealous NASA astronaut Lisa Nowack, the one who drove 900 miles in adult diapers to attack another astronaut's girlfriend. Whatever aghast face you're making now is the one Cobb would be making when he hears the director's vision for Othello; that is, if he weren't so used to this sort of thing.

As a piece of theater, American Moor doesn't have a particularly dramatic shape. Even with the conceit of Cobb's monologue taking place in the context of an audition, the play is still a personal essay with a thesis that's clear from the beginning. If it weren't Cobb's own story, told with an honest, sometimes painfully passionate delivery by the man who has spent his whole life shaping the language to articulate his own existence, the text might not pop the way it does. (It's no surprise that Cobb gives a shout-out to Professor Ayanna Thompson in the program; her Colorblind Shakespeare is a must-read scholarly text on the subject.) Director Kim Weild makes smart use of the theater's space, and designer William Chin's fallen column provides some potent, silent symbolism, but it's entirely Cobb's play.

The elephant in the room for much of the play is the specter of white Shakespeare himself: how will Cobb wrestle with his fidelity to a playwright whose depiction of blackness peddles in stereotypes even as Othello, the play, condemns Iago's racism? When Cobb arrives at the inevitable showdown, it’s not a showdown at all: Cobb’s fight is not with Shakespeare, his great artistic love, and he makes that case clearly and convincingly. It’s smart, too, that Iago scarcely gets mentioned here either.

Instead, and it's obvious that Cobb knows that the vast majority of his audiences will be white, American Moor challenges not 400-year-dead authors or fictional characters but the living, breathing folks on the other side of the footlights. If acting teachers and directors won't see him as a Hamlet or a Richard III, Cobb asks for ownership of the small corner of Shakespeare that he's been told — again and again — is meant to belong to him.

At the end of the audition, which turns rapidly into something else entirely, the director responds exactly how we knew he would. It's up to the rest of us to show we were listening.

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AmeicanMoor written and performed by Keith Hamilton Cobb
Directed by Kim Weild
Cast: Cobb and Josh Tyson
Set Designer: Wilson Chin
Costume Designer: Dede Ayite
Lighting Designer: Alan C. Edwards
Sound Designer: Christian Frederickson
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Cherry Lane Theater, 38 Commerce Street
From 8/27/19; opening 9/8/19; closing 10/5/19
Tuesdays-Fridays at 8, Saturdays at 2 and 8, and Sundays at 3
Reviewed by Dan Rubins at 9/4 performance

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