By: Isa Goldberg
September 20, 2019: An actor of imposing presence, Keith Hamilton Cobb is also the scribe of American Moor, currently at The Cherry Lane Theatre. Cobb’s size alone would command the audience’s attention, but beware the spoiler alert. This is a highly confrontational piece about race, and racism in America. And Cobb directs his message quite pointedly, to us.
“An American Black man burns a whole lotta calories trying to keep a rein on full half of himself just so people around him don’t get nervous. I’m done.” He declares, following with, “Did I ever tell you how much I suck at basketball?”
As the title suggests, the play is about performing the role of Othello…beyond the stereotypes of Othello. Cobb’s affinity for Shakespeare, he explains, stems from how adamant the Bard’s characters are. That makes them great turf for this black man whose “depthless reservoir of emotion” is unleashed by their beautiful words.
While as an actor Cobb is best known for his numerous roles on television (The Young and The Restless, and Noah’s Arc), his authority as a Shakespearean actor is powerful. Here he speaks to us in a variety of voices. His own, with inflections of street talk, and his own as an adult, an actor, and a classically trained performer.
As a vehicle Cobb wrote for himself, the piece is well textured, and reveals the actor’s emotional life in contextually subtle ways. The plot, what there is of one, centers around an audition for a white director, played by Josh Tyson, who is seated among us in the audience. As he insists on telling Cobb how to play Othello, the actor holds firmly to his inner life. We hear his inner thoughts, until he can no longer hold back. At that point he speaks boldly, beseeching the director to hear it truthfully through this black actor’s eyes.
Whether or not he wins the role is up to the audience, in a certain sense. If he wins our empathy, which is his mission, he has more than won the role. He’s paved the way for conversations between people – people who can achieve the compassion to experience a shared humanity.
Interestingly, the piece is unapologetically directed by a white woman, Kim Weild. In Wilson Chin’s set design – a toppled classical column, a statue of a winged lion, and theatrical equipment are tossed upon the Wooden O. And Dede Ayite’s costuming allows Cobb the freedom to play himself as a youth in black high tops, while a dark fitted shirt and khakis give him a militaristic look.