By Michele Markarian
“American Moor”. Written by Keith Hamilton Cobb. Directed by Kim Weild. Presented by O.W.I. (Bureau of Theatre) and Phoenix Theatre Ensemble. At Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, through Aug. 12.
At the end of this deeply personal, soul-mining dialogue, with an invisible but audible white Director, the Actor, played by the magnetic Keith Hamilton Cobb, asks him to tell him what scares him, what makes him feel deeply. And it’s an appropriate question, because experiencing Cobb perform and being privy to his inner thoughts and emotions somehow makes us privy to our own.
The Actor has always loved words, loved Shakespeare. As a young drama student, he was asked to choose a monologue to work on, and when he chose one of Titania’s, the Fairy Queen in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, he was told no. As a tall, aging black man, the one role people assumed he was dying to play was that of Othello, or “The Big O”, as his thirty-something latest white male director describes it. Othello, while admittedly not one of the Actor’s favorite Shakespearian roles, is one the Actor would be willing to play, if the Director would be willing to take a deeper look into the role with him. Alas, this is not the process of theater, where the rehearsal period is a mere three weeks, with lines learned and actors ready to be blocked from the get-go. There is no room for discovery – only what the Director already knows and wishes to impart. “Pick the actor that scares you the most”, says the Actor to the Director, but within the pecking order of a show, it’s more than likely the Director will pick someone who’s compliant, not scary.
The roles the Actor is offered are typical roles for black men – urban, malcontent punks. The Actor is angry – acting, like being gay, is not a choice for him. He is angry, he is misrepresented, he is aware of the fact that his mere presence as a black man is a threat to people. “I do not mean to scare you, but I do it just be standing here”, he intones, somewhat sadly. Despite his anger, Cobb comes through as a compassionate, intelligent and thoughtful man, who wishes simply to engage, rather than impose. He conveys the uniqueness of his own experience – “I am only me”, he pleads with the Director – and in doing so, he oddly enough conveys a kind of identification that transcends race, gender and age. I am not an aging black man, but as an aging former ingénue, I related all too well to the Actor’s conundrum. Being an actor is, in many ways, like being a child. You do as you’re told by the director. You’re restricted to the playwright’s version of a character, with the playwright’s lines. You’re rewarded for being a good child, for playing by the rules. Cobb is tired of playing by the rules, because the rules don’t work for him and who he knows himself to be.
Cobb is a striking presence with a sonorous voice and engaging manner. It’s no surprise that he wrote “American Moor” – he comes across as too intelligent and confrontational to be content with just acting. Although I didn’t stay for the talkback, my friend and I had our own lengthy talkback in the car ride home afterwards. This, theatergoers, is a provocative show, and one that won’t leave you feeling lukewarm. You might even uncover some truths about your own experiences with marginalization. My one regret is that we, the audience, don’t get the chance to see the production of Othello that stars Cobb, after being allowed to process the role through his curious and deeply personal lens. This is an Othello that I would like to see. For more info, go to: https://www.facebook.com/OfficeOfWarInformation/