American Moor, in a return engagement at Anacostia Playhouse, lambasts the audience with a series of provocative questions: can an actor play a role without tapping into the darkest parts of their personality? How can Black men thrive in the arts and society as a whole, when in some quarters, African American energy is seen as a threat? The controversially marvelous American Moor is written and performed by accomplished actor and soap opera star Keith Hamilton Cobb (The Young and the Restless), directed by Kim Weild, and Assistant Directed by Sisi Reid. Cobb made American Moor spellbinding.
The show centers around an unnamed actor (Cobb) striving to bring the brazenness of his Blackness to the audacious character that is Shakespeare’s Othello. The story follows the actor from his teenage years, when he wanted to play Tatiana from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to an adult playing in Othello and having run-ins with an unnamed director (Josh Tyson) about how to play the title character. In one poignant interaction between actor and director, the topic of “playing the race card” comes up. In choosing to direct Othello, the actor asserts that the director “picked up the race deck.”
The unusually tall Cobb talked about the drawbacks of his physical presence as a “big black man,” which can be intimidating to some (Cobb has played a galactic mercenary on the science fiction TV program Andromeda). The show delved into the question of how far Black men should hide their bad sides – we all have them – to make Whites comfortable. Repeatedly, the actor related how he would hold his protests within, instead of expressing them verbally.
The actor had many complaints about the director’s view on playing the character Othello: “A little white man is asking me if I have questions about acting the role of a large black man”; “being ‘open’ [to directorial suggestions] means ‘do it my way.’” Cobb’s imploration to future directors and theater markers, expressed in the program’s director’s notes was: “Talk with me…and listen, really listen. See me…”
Director Kim Weild, a Drama Desk Award nominee, made the interesting choice of having the Director character (Tyson) sit among the audience. There was no set. As the audience took their seats in the black box theater, Cobb sat on an upstage bench, his back mostly to the audience, sitting on a bench studying a book, surrounded by props left over from Driving Miss Daisy. There were few props: a well-worn copy of Othello got angrily smashed to the floor and otherwise abused.
There was no costume designer. Cobb wore a black shirt that showed off his biceps, and brown khakis. Lighting Designer John Alexander impressively brightened the lights in a segment in which Cobb broke the fourth wall and ran into the audience.
With all the dismalness of the subject matter, there’s a bright side. As the Ancient Stoics told us, The Obstacle is the Way; it was Cobb’s physicality that gave him the opportunity to play a science fiction badass, after all. This show, besides its display of superb acting, will definitely have you debating the issues that it raises.
Running Time: One hour and 30 minutes, with no intermission.
Note: There will be post-show discussions, featuring Kevin E. Taylor, Senior Pastor of Unity Fellowship Church of Newark, New Jersey and Michael Witmore, Director of the Folger Shakespeare Library (American Moor is part of the Folger’s permanent collection) on January 17th and January 31st respectively.