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'American Moor' Grapples With Racism — From Shakespeare's World To Today's Stages

Keith Hamilton Cobb in his play, "American Moor." (Courtesy "American Moor")
Keith Hamilton Cobb in his play, "American Moor." (Courtesy "American Moor")
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"Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate, Nor set down aught in malice," reads the "Othello" quote on the frontispiece of Keith Hamilton Cobb’s revelatory “American Moor.” Moreover, the actor/writer will have you know, no pointy-headed Anglophile, speaking from a position of privilege and power, is going to tell him, an African-American actor who has mulled and at least partially lived the role for a lifetime, what makes Shakespeare’s noble if dupable Moor tick.

Cobb’s near-solo play, which is in its Boston premiere at the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theatre through Aug. 12, takes the form of an actor’s audition for the role of Othello. The actor trying out is Keith Hamilton Cobb. The only other voices in the play are those of the Bard’s Othello and an unseen director, both white and wet behind the ears, noncommittally voiced for this production by Matt Arnold. And judging by where Cobb is squinting into the darkness at this disembodied interlocutor, the director is conducting the audition from somewhere in the audience, which makes us seem slightly complicit. ("American Moor" is presented by O.W.I. (Bureau of Theatre) and Phoenix Theatre Ensemble.)

As the audience enters the intimate, stripped-down playing space for the Kim Weild-directed production, Cobb is already onstage, studying a script, soundlessly mouthing words, as if waiting to be called on to perform. His only prop is that “Othello” script, which, in frustration with the omnipotent dweeb handling the audition, he will manhandle from time to time. Mostly, however, he will cradle it with a casual, confident reverence.

Keith Hamilton Cobb plays the role of a man auditioning for Othello. (Courtesy "American Moor")
Keith Hamilton Cobb plays the role of a man auditioning for Othello. (Courtesy "American Moor")

But first, as he waits, the actor will share some personal history. A commanding persona and fanatical aficionado of the Bard, Cobb tells us how he came to switch from English major to burgeoning actor: “I saw Shakespeare … not in a book, but on a stage. It was written to be seen, and heard. And the moment I realized that, I realized that the only thing lacking from what I had been reading was me.” Presently he adds: “I had been presumptuous enough to buy into the preposterous notion that I, my intellect, my instrument, and my crazy-ass African American emotionality could serve the words well, and be served well by them.”

Not that there weren’t roadblocks. And in some ways “American Moor” is like a revenge drama in which Cobb guns his vehicle and, deploying some doubtlessly satisfying sarcasm, runs right back over them: the acting coaches who didn’t get it, the directors who wanted to pigeonhole him as a scary black urban male or, if the Bard came into it, Aaron from “Titus Andronicus” or the Prince of Morocco from “The Merchant of Venice.” And always, because he was tall, imposing and African-American, there lurked, somewhere in his future, Othello.

In some ways “American Moor” is like a revenge drama in which Cobb guns his vehicle and, deploying some doubtlessly satisfying sarcasm, runs right back over them.

Except that the youthful Cobb (he is now in his 50s) did not want to portray the Moor, was in fact insulted by the very idea that his thespian destiny was to enact an “emotionally unstable misogynist murderer.” He wanted to play Hotspur and Titania (both of whom he does, briefly, in “American Moor”), Hamlet and Prince Hal.

Slowly, though, as he experienced and re-experienced the play and ruminated more deeply about it, he thought “that it might, in fact, be a far superior piece of writing than I had dreamt of in my philosophy, and that it might indeed deserve to be looked upon as the pinnacle of my classical acting career.” Moreover, the actor believed he could bring to Shakespeare’s 400-year-old tragedy his own experience as a black man both relied upon and marginalized by a predominantly white society uncomfortable with “black men, like me, raising their voices.”

But back to that imagined audition (for what the unseen helmsman flippantly calls “the big O”). Apparently following several other actors we have not seen, Cobb performs Othello’s first-act speech to the Venetian Senate, a contained and lyrical explanation of newly minted bride Desdemona’s blossoming, piteous regard for him and “the dangers I had passed.” For this, Cobb arms his character with both a relaxed self-possession and “reserve.”

Keith Hamilton Cobb. (Courtesy "American Moor")
Keith Hamilton Cobb. (Courtesy "American Moor")

But the young director, lacking any experience of the Moor’s situation and offering up a truly puerile analogy about a love-crazed astronaut in diapers, wants the actor to make Othello more ingratiating and at the same time already cuckoo-obsessive. What follows is the actor’s outraged response, his assertion that maybe he knows more about who Othello is than any young white scholar or “pedantic little punk-ass” director could. Of course, since the unseen helmsman holds the power, most of the actor’s argument is confined to his own mind — though we get to listen in.

Frankly, though it doesn’t much matter, I agree with Cobb’s interpretation of Othello’s speech to the Senate — as well as with some of his beefs with the American theater. I am sorry, though, that the writer/performer only vaguely delivers us deeper into the play, where Othello becomes unmoored by evil ensign Iago’s manipulations and his own susceptibility. I have seen more than one thespian, including the undeniably great James Earl Jones, held back by an unwillingness to separate the Moor, even in extremis, from his dignity. How, I wondered, would Cobb’s Othello — whom he characterizes as both a maligned and mighty warrior and an ebullient "black child in the body of an aging bad-ass" — steer the role through the coursing waters of Acts 4 and 5?

Of course, “American Moor” is not so much an exegesis on “Othello” as it is an African-American-male Shakespearean’s argument for his own personal and deserved merger with the Bard (with which you can certainly argue). As a performance, alternately stentorian and scathing and bristling with contemporary anger, it is wholly compelling. As an argument, though eccentric and incomplete, it’s fascinating. And “American Moor” crackles with good writing — only some of it by Shakespeare — very authoritatively delivered by Cobb.

“American Moor” crackles with good writing — only some of it by Shakespeare — very authoritatively delivered by Cobb.

The play, which Cobb (who is best known for his television work) has performed in New York and elsewhere, isn’t altogether successful. At 100 intermission-less minutes, bursting with Shakespearean allusion ranging from “Measure for Measure” to “Henry VI,” it is nonetheless marred by repetition and one too many tearful flights of self-indulgence. Also, Cobb’s egocentric take on “Othello” fails to address the 15th-century prejudice and stereotyping that, however exquisitely Shakespeare humanized the Moor and however personally Cobb wrestles with the character, cannot be erased from the script.

But really, "American Moor," pulsing with blunt humor and rage, is so passionate that it had me riveted, ears and brain engaged — even when I disagreed with it.

Carolyn Clay Theater Critic
Carolyn Clay, a theater critic for The ARTery, was for many years theater editor and chief drama critic for the Boston Phoenix.

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