For whatever reason, actors walking alone on stage in front of a red brick wall while the audience takes their seats seems to be ‘in’ this season. First there was Sea Wall/A Life at the Hudson Theatre and now American Moor at the smaller but no less striking Cherry Lane Theater. In both plays the conceit works just fine but perhaps even more so in the latter play as an actor gathers up his forces and prepares himself for the daunting task of auditioning for ‘Othello‘.
‘American Moor‘ is written and mostly performed by Keith Hamilton Cobb, a very large African American writer and actor (named ‘Keith’) who has a definite opinion on how the character Othello should be played. If it seems strange to mention Keith’s height, it’s because that generally seems to be the first thing that directors notice about him. ‘You’re tall!’ is how he is greeted by the unsuspecting offender (played by Josh Tyson) a white director given the task of casting Shakespeare’s play and although he doesn’t actually say it (because he doesn’t actually need to), ‘You’re black!’ would be the appropriate follow up. After all, if Keith were not black and not physically imposing, he knows he would not be in consideration for the part. And not just this part, but almost any Shakespeare lead. This bothers him but that’s not the particular battle he’s fighting at the moment. What rankles him, what disturbs him, and at times what infuriates him is the idea of once again having to stand in an audition and somehow prove himself worthy of playing the part of Othello to a white man who couldn’t in a hundred years comprehend the depths and character and soul of The Moor of Venice. The rage is targeted at the fictitious director in front of him but in reality it is addressed to American society as a whole. ‘You seek to understand me, to emphasize with me, to help me, yet you don’t have the faintest clue what it means to be black in today’s world’ is what Mr. Cobb appears to be saying, and with much justification. The rage that is a part of Othello is a part of the actor; the anger that is a part of Othello is a part of the actor; the fury and jealousy and uncontrollable passion which dictates the Moor’s actions is not something which can possibly be understood by the director nearly as well as the actor because the director is white. And the actor is black. And therein lies the difference.
American Moor is a beautifully written and explosive play which asks important and unsettling questions about the relationship between an actor and a director in today’s world. Keith Hamilton Cobb is a whirling dervish of emotion, at times able to control himself but more often not, especially when he is speaking directly to us, as an audience. He is compelling to watch and even more compelling to listen to. He handles the poetry of the language (both Shakespeare’s and his own), with a rich, lush delivery, never more so than when the character appears to be in actual torment over the situation. Keith’s end game does not appear to be one of control. He doesn’t long to supersede his vision of Othello over that of the director’s. He simply wants to be consulted. To have a dialogue. To share his depth of experience, not just as an actor but as a man. A black man. A black man who brings to the table unique gifts of personal history with regards to Othello’s circumstances that a white director simply does not. Granted, this is a lot to ask from a director who has not even decided to offer you the part yet, and most of the ninety minute play is done in Keith’s mind, the result of decades worth of frustration boiling over. The audience is privy to his thoughts, but the director remains blissfully unaware until Cobb the playwright allows him access. Josh Tyson has little to do in his role but to his credit he embraces his moments and makes the most of them.
American Moor is directed by Kim Weild, a New York theatrical fixture, who happens to be white, and she keeps the play from becoming too strident. In her capable hands the play is less a diatribe about the unfair treatment given to actors, and especially actors of color, and more of an emotional plea for understanding. She also emphasizes the humor in Mr. Cobb’s work and for all its powerful messages about race and anger and the deeply rooted flaws in our society, American Moor is often quite funny.
American Moor is produced by Red Bull Theater, in collaboration with Evangeline Morphos, Frederick M. Zollo, Elizabeth I. McCann and Tom Shea. The limited engagement is scheduled to run through October 5th.
For tickets and more information- Red Bull Theater