‘American Moor’: ‘Talk Back’ time at Anacostia Playhouse

Lively, post-play Q&A sessions spark comments, observations and discussions with "American Moor" playwright, actor and producer Keith Hamilton Cobb.

Keith Hamilton Cobb and Thembi Duncan.
Keith Hamilton Cobb and Thembi Duncan field audience questions. (Credit: Malcolm Lewis Barnes)

WASHINGTON, August 11, 2015 − A unique feature of the current run of Keith Hamilton Cobb’s “American Moor” at the Anacostia Playhouse is their post-show “Talk Back,” which engages audience members seeking a deeper dive into the dramatic material.

Read also: ‘American Moor’ makes DC debut at Anacostia Playhouse

Guests are invited and encouraged to come and lend their voices to the dialogue at one of eight post-show discussions on select performance dates. I was so intrigued by my first visit to this production, I decided to return to another performance to get a flavor for who was attending these “Talk Backs” and get their spin on this very provocative and thought-provoking play.

Audience member Betty Shuford (yellow top) asks how Cobb curbs his enthusiasm. (Credit: Malcolm Lewis Barnes)
Audience member Betty Shuford (yellow top) asks how Cobb curbs his enthusiasm. (Credit: Malcolm Lewis Barnes)

I wasn’t disappointed. A majority of the audience for a well-attended, Blue Moon Friday performance stayed over to howl at the moon and play the dozens with playwright, actor and producer Keith Hamilton Cobb, who was tag team partnered with Thembi Duncan, Lead Teaching Artist at Ford’s Theatre.

August Bullock a local director of the New Works Reading Series in Washington wanted to know, “Where’s the hope?” Hamilton-Cobb responded, “The [central] character is the hope! His message is, ‘I will be back.’ I made a concerted effort to not make him a bad guy. There is no good or bad guy. I sought to portray the struggle!”

Another participant was struck by Cobb’s dual persona that allowed his inner “Luther” Anger Translator persona to channel the character’s angry, internal “brain farts.” He wanted to know what percentage of the play’s character was providing public versus private comments.

“I stopped worrying about if people got it,” Cobb shot back. “He’s saying things so heinous at times, that it must be private. I think it should be a little fuzzy, and he often goes public with something [he says] that many think should have been kept private.”

“Thanks for the comment,” Cobb added.

By now the audience was loosening up and ready to throw a couple of haymakers. Thembi Duncan stepped in, challenging and coaxing the audience to share what in the play made them uncomfortable. I, myself, wanted to understand the play’s cringe-worthy observations about the willingness of some career actor to put an “Othello” on his resume along with eight other August Wilson productions, and be happy to do another “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” in Houston again.

“I don’t subscribe to idolizing black playwrights, Cobb observed. “I like 50 percent of August Wilson and Shakespeare’s stuff, and don’t get me wrong, I think [Wilson’s] very brilliant. But that’s all you see on black actors’ resumes and too many hold him up as the ‘Old Bard’ when there are a lot of great black playwrights around who just don’t get produced,” Cobb continued, obviously holding himself up as one example.

Thembi Duncan wanted to know if the audition as a metaphor in the play was meant to hold a mirror up to black actors who are striving to find a place in the world. “There aren’t that many places for a large black man to be a large black man,” she said.

Cobb himself asserted, “The metaphor exists to challenge us. [The character’s] strategy is to return! We also want to explore all the other times we didn’t get the job. This play is so reflective of life in America.”

A young black woman wasn’t feeling Shakespeare and wanted to know why he called it the “‘American’ Moor”? America hasn’t been good to black men or women, she observed.

“I am an American man,” replied Cobb. “I am a product of this country. In the classic Shakespearian sense, Othello was the Moor of Venice, which explained why he offered a toast in Italian – what else would he say in Venice, but Italian? But American audiences would be threatened by a black speaking Italian,” offered Cobb as both a vignette in the performance as much a thought-provoking aside on Othello’s otherwise child-like nature.

In another response prompted by Duncan’s question as to what might have made individuals in the audience squirm with discomfort, a black woman theater critic said, “That made me feel like you were begging for white acceptance.”

Cobb fired back, “I would get no jobs if I didn’t assume some supplication. We are all raised to reflexively respond to white advantage. People of color are always asking for a chance for acceptance and our only choice is to be angry. We make choices about that all the time. The idea that he is begging may be a petition to GOD. This time he may listen. That’s an interesting and very valid comment.”

Audience members August Bullock and Howard Brown join the queue to continue the dialogue. (Credit: Malcolm Lewis Barnes)
Audience members August Bullock and Howard Brown join the queue to continue the dialogue. (Credit: Malcolm Lewis Barnes)

Senior citizen Howard Brown felt compelled to observe, “You are so fucking charming!” And a therapist in the audience noted, “I am a white woman (as the rest of the audience sighed a collective DUH), and I like the way you curb yourself, and the intensity and the tears and vulnerability you reveal on stage.” Cobb just smiled the ingratiating grin that Othello surely offered to the Venetian senate.

Thembi Duncan wanted to know what it was like working with director and fellow actor Craig Wallace.

“This was the first time I’ve done the play in a theater with three sides,” replied Cobb, “and what Craig did that was most valuable was direct traffic and allow me to work all sides of the stage. When I sent him the script, he immediately got it. And he has the type of personality and control of his ego that makes it easy to work with him. He’s proud of the work.”

Another black theater veteran asserted, “I never considered Othello as a modern construct.”

Cobb offered another perspective. “Consider it a model. I hated the play! Because as an actor he ‘had’ to play this role. And as that of an aging black man.”

In one of Othello’s monologue highlights in the play, he reflects on his vulnerability. “At the end of the day, you are just old,” Cobb says, “and the victim of diminishing returns. The Moor knows this, and it only makes him angry, as the actor channels his private thought. Not only am I black, I’m fucking 52! He knows he is old and epileptic. His situation is dire.”

Another woman wanted to know why the unseen director in his play didn’t get more dialogue. “It would only make it a very long play,” Cobb replied. “But honestly, I see the director as someone who thinks he did everything right. He went to the right school, got the position, and thinks that he is doing me a favor by bringing me in the room!”

“It’s all about the internal struggle,” Cobb continued. [The central character] is his own protagonist. There is so much that is not being said. One of the most powerful and saddest thoughts is, ‘They don’t know what they don’t know! How do you start the conversation?”

On that note, this fast-paced 50 minute “Talk Back” session came to a close. But the engagement proved so successful that the audience lingered another 20 minutes, hanging out until 11 p.m. as individuals formed a circular queue to fire another layer of questions at the star, who knows he is supposed to be open and available – which he was.

Remaining “Talk Back” sessions: Post-show discussions like the one detailed above are presented in partnership with the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. There are two remaining “Talk Back” sessions after the play on Thursday, August 13, and Friday, August 14. Special guest facilitators will be announced on social media under the hashtag #MoorToThisStory.

Where: “American Moor” began its month-long performance schedule in mid-July. The play will continue its run through Sunday, August 16th at the Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Pl. SE, Washington, DC 20020.

Tickets: $25 general admission, $20 for East of the River residents, seniors and students. For tickets and information, call 202-290-2328 or visit www.anacostiaplayhouse.com.

[1] Keith Hamilton Cobb and Thembi Duncan
[2] Audience member Betty Shuford in yellow asks how he curbs his enthusiasm.
[3] Audience members August Bullock and Howard Brown join the que to continue the dialogue.

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