As I walked into the cool confines of the Anacostia Playhouse, I was greeted by soft, far-upstage lighting that gently illuminated the sole performer, Keith Hamilton Cobb, idly looking over his lines and doing vocal warmups. It was a comforting, almost bucolic tableau of an actor doing the familiar rituals of a pre-audition; a sanctuary, it seemed to me, from the sweltering July heat. Little did I know that underneath the familiar exterior of an actor going through the motions was a performer ready to burst forth his pent up opinions on race, theatre, and Othello himself. More heat would emanate from the stage than any three-digit summer day in DC.
Keith Hamilton Cobb’s one-man show, American Moor, is a dense, intense, and thought-provoking piece that centers around the actor’s relationship to Othello, which in turn is a metaphor for black actors’ relationship to American theatre, which in turn is a metaphor for the otherization of black men in Western society. After a long career of toeing the actor’s party line, where one never questions the wisdom of the (frequently white) director, dramaturg or other Big Wig lest he or she forego the rent check for next month – Mr. Cobb is finally ready to tell it like it is.
At moments it’s tough to untangle which personage Cobb is adopting – is he the Moor himself, calling over the Straight of Gibralter to plead with his venerable ancestors to deliver him from the petty and small minded Venetians? Is he himself, Keith Hamilton Cobb, rebuking countless directors whose racial privilege blinds them from their own ignorance? Or is he the archetypal Black Actor, shut out of everything but urban dramas and Tyler Perry-esque minstrel shows, the one everyone assumes has played “the big O” even as they consistently misunderstand Shakespeare’s greatest character.
The setting for Cobb’s tirade is apt – an audition for Othello, where a recorded voice from the house plays a very white, very pretentious director whose main feedback to Cobb is “Wow, you’re tall!” As Cobb struggles to confine his true beliefs about the character, about race, about theatre, he indulges in lengthy asides to the audience where he discusses all three with abandon.
Cobb is a powerful performer, and he puts himself through the emotional meat grinder for this production. Sometimes giddy, sometimes nostalgic, but mostly burning with a rock-iron anger honed after years of condescension at the hands of elites, Cobb is an imposing presence on stage. His rich baritone voice and expressive physical language hint at an actor steeped in Classical tradition. But the raw urgency of his message ensures a truthfulness and direct emotionalism that only comes from an authentic need to share a message with us.
Having never seen Mr. Cobb perform before, this nevertheless felt to me like the role he was destined to play. It is a flinching pleasure to watch him let it all out, and it made me confront my own rarefied place in the theatre world. As a nice white critic from Centreville, Virginia, I never once thought of any of the things Cobb talked about. It never occurred to me that black artists had something to say about Othello or the theatre in general that my B.A. in Performance didn’t equip me for.
I, who creeped into Anacostia to watch a black actor talk about the systemic racism of theatre and society as a whole, was genuinely uncomfortable as I faced Cobb’s anger face-to-face. But it was a delicious discomfort, the kind of conscience-tickling monkey wrench that only live theatre can throw into the mechanism of the mind. I had a lot to think about after Mr. Cobb took his bows to a standing ovation.
I don’t know where I come down on all the issues discussed, but one thing is for sure: I will never view Othello the same way again. And in that small way, critic by critic, white boy by white boy, Mr. Cobb is changing the world.