How an imposing, indomitable black actor explores "Othello" and American perceptions of race.
WASHINGTON, July 22, 2015 – The first thing you notice as you walk into the intimate black box theater space at Anacostia Playhouse to take in a performance of “American Moor” is Keith Hamilton Cobb’s brooding presence. The relentlessly pacing veteran actor is awaiting his imaginary turn in an audition for the key role of Othello in an upcoming production.
“American Moor” is a one-man play that’s not only written but also performed by Cobb, a native New Yorker who once made People magazine’s list of the 50 Most Beautiful People back in 1996. But most soap opera and Sci-Fi aficionados know him better as Damon Porter, the daytime TV Emmy Award winning actor who appeared in “The Young & Restless” and also as Noah Keefer, a recurring role in “All My Children.”
Cobb last appeared on the DC stage in the Shakespeare Theatre’s 2000 production of “Coriolanus.” He is a classically trained actor, and has appeared in a number of regional Shakespeare productions including stints at the Shakespeare Theatre of Washington, where he performed such classic roles as Laertes in “Hamlet,” Tybalt in “Romeo and Juliet,” and Oberon in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
“American Moor” is an authentic and unwavering niche theatrical performance whose goal is to stimulate forward progress and institutional change. It was first performed in November of 2014 at the Westchester Community College and was followed by two New York area engagements at the Wild Project Theater in New York’s Lower East Side and the Luna Stage in West Orange, New Jersey.
As we return to the stage and observe the actor awaiting his audition and his chance to shine, Cobb seems to be a ball of nervous energy as he gets prepared to strut his stuff in a black muscular shirt, tan khaki pants and black Chuck Converse All Star sneakers.
The fearsome looking actor, also known for his role as the ruthless mercenary Tyr Anasazi in Gene Roddenberry’s science-fiction series “Andromeda,” appears to fit the athletic warrior’s role, but has never played the “big dumb jock.” That term pops up when the producer of the Othello production he’s auditioning for asks him how tall he is and makes a lame reference to “The Big “O,” NBA legend Oscar Robertson of Cincinnati Royals 1960s and Milwaukee Bucks 1970s fame.
Things get very interesting as Cobb begins to channel his inner “Luther the Anger Translator” persona made famous by Keegan-Michael Key of Key & Peale Comedy Central fame.
“’The Big O,'” who says that? And I suck at basketball!” Cobb shoots back. When you are a tall, black American man the question is always, “do you play basketball??”
And that’s how the audition gets started, as he is asked to read Othello’s first scene before the Senate. It’s a challenging scene in which he has to ingratiate himself with and as well as entertain his antagonists who, despite his fame as an imposing, conquering Moorish general the senators still see as their inferior.
Luther opines, “You know you’re in trouble when they start with ‘this is what Shakespeare was thinking – I didn’t know you knew him that way!’”
Cobb can hardly contain himself as he gathers his thoughts, saying to himself, “Take a break Negro, I got this,” as he repeats his personal mantra, “I am a large, intelligent, intuitive, indomitable black man.”
The power and poignancy of Cobb’s performance is demonstrated again and again as he seamlessly pivots between delivering flawless lines of Shakespearian dialogue, even as he alternates with angry internal ‘Luther’ outbursts. The latter are intended to deflect the constant interruptions of the director, who seems to be deliberately trying to throw him off his game by suggestion emasculating alternative approaches to his interpretation of Othello.
“The senator thrives on obeisance which you should use to win them with charm and tales of exotic conquest,” says the director. Luther wants to lash out, but Cobb the professional tells himself, “Put on your game face. Breathe Negro. You are supposed to be open and available! Be open, while containing your frustration – See it my way. They want you to be their Othello!”
“For 400 years you’re going to tell me you know him?” Cobb opines. “How do I play Othello? As an enigmatic, insatiable, misogynistic murderer? Or the self-loathing baboon?
“I was ashamed of him,” confesses Cobb, as his angry Luther wrestles with the actor’s love-hate relationship with Othello, that classic Shakespearean role that is the holy grail of classically trained actors.
Though a veteran of television, Keith Hamilton Cobb’s life-long love for the stage has compelled him to develop this remarkable, controversial, and timely piece that takes the audience into a sanctified and often secretive place: the audition room of a professional American theater.
Cobb sees this drama as a metaphor for one of our most pressing societal conditions, white privilege vs. black worth. This is an issue that is certainly fresh in the minds of America and the sometimes incestuous theater community, and it’s confronted in Cobb’s drama by a simple question: Can white culture dictate the rules of conduct to a black performer given that such rules originate from an often-inadvertent place of privilege?
“American Moor” is an unapologetic look into that theater industry conundrum.
Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars) This is MUST SEE Theater. Don’t sleep on this show. It’s only in town for a month on Thursdays through Sunday matinee performances during the dog days of late July and earl August.
Run time is 80 minutes with no intermission.
What’s Next for “American Moor”?
The ultimate goal for Cobb’s “American Moor” is to conclude the play’s run in London, where British film maker Bobby Razak plans to air a documentary on the “Making of American Moor,” including audience participation along the circuit. Razak is actively seeking investors for the film, which will log post-show dialogue and be aired in London in 2016.
To check out the film’s progress visit him online at http://bobbyrazakmovies.com, or at YouTube.com/bobbyrazak and you can always Tweet him @bobbyrazak.
“American Moor” began its month-long performance schedule on Friday, July 17, 2015. The show runs through Sunday, August 16th at the Anacostia Playhouse, located at 2020 Shannon Pl. SE, Washington, DC 20020.
Tickets: $25 general admission, $20 for East of the River residents, seniors and students. Call 202-290-2328 or visit www.anacostiaplayhouse.com
Post-show discussions: Guests are invited and encouraged to come and lend their voices to the dialogue at one of eight performances: Friday, July 24; Thursday, July 30; Friday, July 31; Sunday, August 2; Friday, August 7; Sunday, August 9; Thursday, August 13; Friday, August 14. Post-show discussions are presented in partnership with Folger Shakespeare Library and Thembi Duncan.
Special guest facilitators will be announced on social media under the hashtag #MoorToThisStory.Click here for reuse options!
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