Review: AMERICAN MOOR

by Lynn on October 16, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

On Line at: www.redbulltheatre.com

Until Friday, Oct. 16 at 7:00 pm.

Written by Keith Hamilton Cobb

Directed by Kim Weild

Cast: Keith Hamilton Cobb

Josh Tyson

Ayana Workman

A stunning, poetic punch in the gut.

American Moor by Keith Hamilton Cobb is an on-line reading.

It was produced by Red Bull Theatre, an Off-Broadway company in New York, previously and now it’s being offered for free, on-line, until Friday, Oct. 16 at 7:00 pm.  

The play examines the experience and perspective of Black men in America through the metaphor of William Shakespeare’s character, Othello. It’s part of the company’s Othello 2020 season.

The play is a doozy.

Ayana Workman reads the stage directions which places the play squarely and specifically in America. “Now. Very now.” (one might also say Canada as well.)

An African-American actor named Keith is auditioning for the lead in an American production of Shakespeare’s Othello. Keith is between 45 and 55 years old. And he’s auditioning for a white director named Michael Aaron Miller, who is between 28 and 38.

You get the sense that in this case of a triple barrelled name, the playwright is creating a sense of pretention with the director. (Even though the playwright’s own name is triple barreled.) This pretention is  further established when the director says to Keith, “So, the big O!” as if playing Othello is the pinnacle of acting jobs for an African-American actor.

The play takes the form of Keith quoting speeches from Othello and other Shakespeare plays as part of his audition and to the audience for context. Keith gives the audience his background as well as asides about the director. For example, we learn that Keith was an English major in university. He segued into acting. He says things like: “I learned I was an actor. I wasn’t taught it,”  As if he learned certain things by instinct rather than being taught it. He learned he had an affinity for Shakespeare and was buoyed by what he saw as huge choices.

We learn early on that Keith was confined by a director’s view of him. When he was a young actor in a class he was asked by a director what speech he wanted to work on. Keith said Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. When the director said that was not suitable Keith suggested Hamlet. The director said that Keith did not have enough experience (life experience?) for Hamlet.  The director thought that perhaps Aron in Titus Andronicus  would be a better choice—Aron was black and better suited to Keith who was black. Keith noted he was a villain. The teacher suggested Morocco in The Merchant of Venice and didn’t think Morocco was a villain (Oh yeah? Aren’t we glad Portia didn’t have to find out). So we get a good picture of what Keith had to contend with:  insensitive white directors who confined him only to parts for Black characters.   

Keith commented on directors who think they are talking for Shakespeare when they offer to explain what Shakespeare meant by a line or thought.

We soon get the measure of the character of Michael Aaron Miller, the director of this production of Othello. When Keith enters the audition room and greets the director, Michael Aaron Miller breezes by the greeting and immediately remarks at how tall Keith is:  “How tall are you?” It was jokey and good natured. But not to Keith.  And of course Michael Aaron Miller has a concept for the play and his focus is on “irrational jealousy”.  Miller thought of the jealous woman who drove across the country (wearing an adult diaper so she wouldn’t have to stop) to confront her husband’s lover and the example of irrational jealousy and applied it to Othello.  

We hear Keith in an aside to the camera trying to calm himself and not explode. The director says, “Is there anything I can make clear to you before we start?” We know that this young whippersnapper of a director falls into the cliché of the directors that Keith has had to deal with, who is going to tell him what the play Othello is all about. This is not just an aspect of this play.

It’s a reflection of the world of the Black actor or BIPOC actors.  A well-intentioned but tone-deaf, insensitive director is going to tell them the meaning of something they already know in their bones.

I think playwright Keith Hamilton Cobb has written an exquisitely poetic, bristling play specifically about a black actor dealing with a blinkered white director. But from a universal perspective it’s about a Black person who has to contend with white privilege and he’s had it up to here with dealing with it.   It’s Keith Hamilton Cobb’s personal eruption of what a Black person or person of colour has to deal with when they are not seen or heard.

Isn’t that what we heard with the various protests, with Black Lives Matter and the eruption of rage and being overlooked.

“See me” was repeated often.

“Hear me” was repeated often.

The character of Keith has a stunning speech which shows the eloquence and punch of Keith Hamilton Cobb’s writing:

“I’m giving you pearls here, if you could hear me. If you could see me I might save you from another cookie cutter Othello you’re ready to run off half-cooked and hand the public each time you and every other would-be saviour of the American Theatre perennially picks up this play like it needs you. Like it needs your self-concerned conceptualizing and your venerated Eurocentric scholarship. Like it needs your huge false set of balls that this American culture gave you that makes you think that it’s acceptable for you to sit there on your little, narrow privileged lily-white MFA ass and judge a Black man on what a Black man is supposed to be.”

This is wonderful, angry, eye-opening dialogue in a play that is blazing with insight and rage.  Is it the character’s rage? The playwright’s? Both?  

Josh Tyson plays Michael Aaron Miller with boyish enthusiasm. Ayana Workman reads the stage directions and listens and reacts to Cobb’s rage with understated irony. She knows what he’s talking about.  Keith Hamilton Cobb has the lion’s share of the play—it often seems like a solo part–and he plays it with nuance, anger and grace.

He has things to say about being Black, race politics and Othello that are important to hear.

It behooves us to listen.

American Moor is live streamed for free until tonight  (Oct. 16) at  7:00 pm on the Red Bull Theatre website. https://www.redbulltheater.com

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