After 57 years of playing nice, Keith Hamilton Cobb is finally raising his voice. Tired of bending his actorly instincts and lived experiences as a black man to please misguided white directors (working mostly with material from white playwrights), Cobb is mad as hell and isn’t going to take it anymore. Or, well, maybe not so mad.
His play, American Moor, certainly isn’t as mad as it could be, considering the weight of its themes and the centuries-old traditions it rails against. It’s not an easy task the actor-playwright has created for himself. The issue for Cobb is smothering: raise his voice too loud and risk being labeled an “Angry Black Man,” or stay quiet and be told by the umpteenth white director how to accurately play the role of a black man.
The title refers to Othello, that grand Shakespearean role written for a black actor of considerable size and talent (not that white actors haven’t played the role before, Cobb reminds us). It seems every black actor of a certain age has, at one point or another, been asked to play the tragic figure; a sort of career height for careers often relegated to racist stereotypes or August Wilson characters. In what is essentially a 90-minute monologue, Cobb guides us through his own theatrical coming-of-age, passionately invoking his love for the stage while outlining the infuriating limitations set before him.
Kim Weild’s understated direction has the actor strut and fret upon Wilson Chin’s near-bare stage, with Corinthian columns suggesting the early phases of a future production of Othello. The play alternates between fourth wall-breaking where he expounds on the frustration he feels for his chosen profession, and a sort of Othello audition from hell, lorded over by “A Director” (Josh Tyson) seated among the audience.
Cobb, or rather, “An Actor,” as the role is billed, is contained and deferential towards the director, painfully aware of the power structures, not only between director and performer, but of the more sinister racial ones at play. We see the actor grit his teeth as the director micro-agresses his way through the audition process, constantly embodying Cobb’s claim that directors’ requests for him to “be open” really translates to, “see it my way.”
“I ain’t got no questions, but you should,” Cobb snarls at the seated figure. Not to the director’s face, of course, but in his external-inner monologue to us (Alan C. Edwards’ alternating lighting design starkly reminds us when Cobb is addressing us and when he’s back in the audition). It’s during these audition scenes that Cobb’s ideas best come to fruition. It’s where his lived experiences are vividly shown, as opposed to being told again and again by Cobb what he’s gone through. Because, no matter how much we agree with Cobb – which, with a performance as impassioned, and arguments as well-made as his, it is impossible not to – his points are made rather quickly, leaving the rest of the production dragging towards its conclusion.
The actor’s testimony is a thoughtful, necessary one which might ideally alter the landscape of casting and pre-production to include the experiences of actors of color – and other marginalized identities – in the conversations surrounding their roles in any particular work. Cobb repeatedly stresses the idiocy of being told how to play a strong, black man by someone whose own experience could not be further from his own, and it’s impossible to disagree. But once we’re all in agreement – and, considering theater’s largely left-leaning, guilt-ridden audiences in uniform approval, this happens fairly quickly – there doesn’t seem to be anywhere left to go.
Once consensus is reached on Cobb’s predicament, it’s hard to imagine why the actor-playwright shouldn’t unleash his all on the stage. His words ring true when he says that, for many, a black man raising his voice is a cause for concern, but, with an audience entirely in the palm of his hands, it’s disappointing to see that Cobb won’t allow himself the “freedom of emotional release” for which he praises Shakespeare’s writing. This is not to say the performance is weak or unengaging, but that it might benefit from crossing the very boundaries he protests. The occasional line will land as more provocative than most, and Cobb will often slip into brief Shakespearean monologues to remind us of his artistic prowess, but the latter part of the performance feels mired in repetition; a playwright struggling to fulfill his word count.
Yes, artists of color (and women, and from the LGBTQ+ community, etc…) justly deserve the ability to participate in the conversations surrounding their onstage representations. No one knows a particular experience more than those who have lived it, and any production of Othello which does not encourage its lead to plumb the depths of their own place in a racist society will likely be an untruthful one. This we know. The question is, what now?