Posted by: helenabeliveau | November 13, 2018

Review: Keith Hamilton Cobb’s American Moor

 

This past Sunday, I had the opportunity to attend the final performance of American Moor and an intimate post-show talk, reserved for Mount Holyoke students.  This performance capped off a two-week residency at Mount Holyoke for writer and actor Keith Hamilton Cobb and director Kim Weild. American Moor is a play that tells the story of an actor auditioning to play the titular role of Othello.  This audition, in turn, takes an unflinching look at race relations in contemporary America, as told through the lens of an African American actor struggling to have his voice heard and his experience recognized.  Although not explicitly autobiographical, Cobb told the audience in the post-show discussion that many of his experiences as an African American actor are injected into writing this play.  He wrote this work in the fall of 2012, and it was initially performed in March 2013.  

Cobb has had an accomplished career in theater and TV following his graduation from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in 1987.  Most notably, he has garnered a Daytime Emmy nomination for his role in tv series All My Children, in addition to playing multiple Shakespearean characters ranging from Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet, Octavius in Julius Caesar, and none other than the title role in Othello. The play’s director, Kim Weild, received her BFA from NYU Tisch School of the Arts and her MFA from Columbia University.  She is currently an associate professor at the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama. Her directing work has spanned to several theaters.  In addition, she has been the associate director to multiple Tony-winning director Michael Blakemore on Broadway. This dynamic proved to be especially compelling in the post-show talks, in which Weild and Cobb discussed the fairly parallel experience of having a white woman direct an African American actor.  

 Cobb was present on stage consulting a book as the audience filtered into the theater.  The play begins with a monologue chronicling this ‘actor’s’ beginnings as a young aspiring actor.  Working his way up to his time in acting school, he humorously critiques the institutions that trained him.  In these anecdotes, he expresses disdain towards the elitism of contemporary theater, especially in the realm of Shakespeare, as many scholars seem to believe they are Shakespeare’s ‘personal therapist.’

The actor’s musings push the audience to become involved in the performance.  This involvement is cemented once the actor declares that he is “breaking the fourth wall”,  and jumps from the stage and speaks directly to the people in the first row. The audience then feels as if they are confidantes to the actor’s comments on his early life as an actor.  In relaying a memory of his time in acting school, the actor recalls a moment where a teacher asked his students to come prepared with any monologue from a Shakespeare work. When the actor tells him that he would like to do a monologue of Titania, Queen of the Fairies, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he is immediately shot down.  What follows is an exchange in which the actor is consistently told that he cannot portray any of the characters that he chooses, and is ultimately told by the teacher that he, unsurprisingly, should do a monologue as Othello.  The actor and the audience is soon roused out of this memory by a voice in the audience yelling “Keith!”, followed by, “So… the Big O huh?”.

What follows is a searing look at not only racism within the theater scene, but racism in contemporary America, as contained in an audition for Othello.  This is demonstrated as the white director proceeds to subtly belittle ‘Keith’s’ interpretation of the character of Othello, essentially denying Keith’s own experiences as an African American man, and how he applies them to a character, who has also felt like the ‘large black man’ in the room.  During this exchange, what was once a moment of closeness between actor and audience, quickly transforms to feelings of complicity. This transition is almost instantaneous as the audience witnesses the uncomfortable nature of a white man telling a black man how he should act, or how he thinks a black man should act.  

The second half of the play is Keith’s deft oscillation between a conversation with the director, and a conversation with himself, as he contemplates his frustration in having to play this black character, as filtered through a white man’s eyes.  Keith’s anger and despair are palpable as he slowly becomes unable to keep up the veneer of conviviality with the director. In a moment that can only be described as uncomfortable and farcical, the director compares Othello’s ‘irrational jealousy’ to a news headline involving a former astronaut, jilted lover, and an adult diaper.  Finally, Keith can be silent no more, and unleashes on the director for acting as authority to a character so far removed to his experience as a white man.

There is a certain catharsis reached at the end of the play, albeit it is quickly undercut by the director’s curt and dismissive “thanks” and “we’ll keep in touch.” The audience realizes that the director has failed to recognize this actor and his experience, yet again.  Although it was difficult to watch the end of the play, as it proved to be devoid of reconciliation or understanding, I found it to be extremely effective and necessary in conveying the frustration of the experience of feeling othered and silenced. The nature of the one-man show, in addition to the decision to embed the director within the audience, pushed the viewers to become actively involved with the production and these ideas.  Through this interactive approach, I felt that the audience was then pushed to recognize their own complicity in certain situations, or their own feelings of ‘otherness’ in certain experiences. I left the production feeling contemplative, yet slightly unsatisfied with the unresolved nature of the play.  However, I feel like the addition of a post-show discussion reinforced the importance of facilitating discussion, something that never comes to fruition in the play.  This play is relevant to our contemporary social and political climate, and I believe that the play and post-show talk invokes an urgent and necessary message: to listen.

Works Cited

American Moor.  By Keith Hamilton Cobb, Directed by Kim Weild.  Performances by Keith Hamilton Cobb and Josh Tyson.  November 11, 2018. Rooke Theater.

https://www.kimweild.com/bio/

http://keithhamiltoncobb.com/site/khcbio/


Responses

  1. I likewise was struck by the ending of Cobb’s production, and though similarly dissatisfied with the lack of solid resolution, considered that very lack the cue to initiate discussion and perpetuate dialogue. From the start of the performance, I was intrigued by Cobb’s presence on stage as you mention – his preparation and the audiences’ imposition on the creative process of the actor. I found this both initially uncomfortable in its removal from expectation, and appropriate as the play proceeded and it became clear just how involved we as viewers were made to be. As much as the audience is made to feel their own voyeurism in watching Cobb perform, we are also made to observe ourselves and inflict that same voyeuristic gaze on our own complicity, as you mentioned, in the problem he addresses.

    The evolution of his performance as well I found fascinating, following the internal monologue (in which we are ourselves implicated) of Cobb’s character until those thoughts are able to be expressed aloud and through the protestations of the Director. The arresting declaration of “This isn’t the place for this discussion” pushed for me the central message of the work: of course this is the place for it; anywhere is always the place for it so long as we are ready (or made) to listen. There is no excuse in Cobb’s production for the silencing of a people for the sake of “art”.


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