Keith Hamilton Cobb Starts An Important Conversation
Review: American Moor
Written and Performed by Keith Hamilton Cobb
Directed by Kim Weild
Presented by ArtsEmerson
Through April 21
Emerson Paramount Center, Boston
Reviewed by Bobby Franklin
Keith Hamilton Cobb loves the work of William Shakespeare. His passion for and relationship with the words are conveyed strongly early on in American Moor, the autobiographical play he has written and he is now performing in at the Emerson Paramount Center in Boston. His enthusiasm is infectious as he takes the stage and recites lines and passages while telling the story of how he came, at an early age, to love the great plays. He is funny, provocative, and touching. If this were only a work about one man’s journey of discovering Shakespeare it would be outstanding. However, there is much more to Mr. Cobb’s story.
You see, Mr. Cobb is an actor and a Shakespearean. He is also a 6’4” black man, and in his relationship with the theatre that fact cannot be ignored. Early on when he was asked what characters from Shakespeare he would like to perform he mentioned Hamlet, Romeo, and even Titania from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was assumed he would say Othello, or the big “O” as the role as become known. It is here where we begin to see his anger.
Mr. Cobb is on the stage alone for the entire 90 minute performance. Josh Tyson plays a director who speaks from a seat in the audience, and the dialog between the two is both funny and revealing. As Cobb is reciting his lines the director is giving him suggestions on how he should deliver them. Cobb pulls no punches in his feelings about people who interpret Shakespeare with an arrogance and superiority as if they had been close friends with him. It is particularly irritating to him when he hears “What Shakespeare was trying to say here…” His responses to these comments are spoken aloud with anger and frustration, and he is quick to point out that he didn’t actually say them when being auditioned but was thinking then. After all, he was trying to get a job, and he doesn’t get to interview the artistic directors.
At this point we see his bond with Othello begin. Othello was also involved with acting a certain way in order to maintain his job. He becomes protective of the Moor and questions how a white director can understand what goes on in the mind and psyche of a black character, and a black actor. He argues that his being a large black man gives him a particular insight that a white person could never feel.
This work is a great starting point for a “conversation”, a word that is so often used today but rarely happens in America, about race. Is it true that only a black man can inhabit and understand the role of Othello? And if that is true, doesn’t it mean that Mr. Cobb could end up pigeon holed in roles that only match his race? I certainly hope not. I’d love to hear more of his thoughts about cultural appropriation and how it should be handled in the theatre.
In the end Cobb does reveal that he was making it too personal, that he is the vessel for the words of Shakespeare. It might also be asked how this dead white male was able to create such a complex character who was so different from himself.
American Moor is a fascinating work that touches on so many emotions and questions. It would be easy to sit through it and treat it as a lecture on how white people just don’t get it, and in so many ways that is true. But, it would be a shame if it is only seen as that. It is such a good place to begin the conversation, and theatre is a place to explore the feelings of those different from us and to speak openly and honestly with those with whom we have differences.
I do know the hour and a half I spent watching Mr. Cobb perform got my mind working. His strong emotions got my own to react. In my mind I was having a conversation with him, and I left the theater with many questions.
He talked about people expecting a black actor to behave in a certain way. It is also true many white people think they have to behave in a certain way when interacting with a black person. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could be ourselves and speak openly about these issues.
Keith Hamilton Cobb has been open with his emotions. He is honest and revealing and that takes courage. Exploring these issues through the work of William Shakespeare is a fine way to approach them. I recommend you head over to the Emerson Paramount Center and listen to what Mr. Cobb has to say. If the conversation makes you uncomfortable, he is doing his job. If you manage to leave the theatre without wanting to hear more Shakespeare, well, then you really weren’t paying attention.