Summer is a time to pause from our struggles and refresh our spirits. There is much to absorb, both at home and abroad.
Despite progress, racial and sexual minorities still must fight to be seen as human beings. Henry Davis won the right to sue Ferguson Police for excessive force after being charged with destruction of property for bleeding on their uniforms when they beat him. Teenager Shira Banki died after being stabbed at Jerusalem Pride by an Israeli terrorist. Activists in St. Petersburg were arrested for protesting for the right to hold a Pride parade. On the bright side, peace prevailed at Jamaica’s first Pride celebration. Texas officials finally reflected a gay couple’s marriage on a death certificate following a federal judge’s order. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced that transgender Americans will be allowed to serve openly in the military.
On the night of a blue moon, I turn from these concerns and seek escape in a small community theater. In the best way, it ends up being no escape at all.
The lively arts can give us fresh eyes when they beguile us into identification with other people and places. In the body and voice of a living performer, a long-vanished composer or playwright can provoke a flash of recognition. Such moments can bind us together more than political arguments could do. Yet their transformative power flies on delicate wings. It requires collaboration and vision and receptivity and mutual challenge. Our impulse to connect can be thwarted in a hundred ways.
The urge to come together despite difference is brought powerfully and movingly to life in the play American Moor, written and performed by Keith Hamilton Cobb, at Anacostia Playhouse through August 16. The situation is an actor’s audition. His agent used to tell him, “You’re an actor. You can do anything!” But people didn’t buy him as ‘anything,’ only as one thing. He is invisible, as Ralph Ellison wrote, because people refuse to see him. So the tall black thespian, with unrealized visions of Hamlet, Prince Hal, and Romeo dancing in his head, tries out for Othello.
While waiting, he recalls his student days when he recited Titania’s “forgeries of jealousy” speech from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His skeptical teacher asks why he chose Titania. “I like what she says,” he answers. “The Faerie Queen?” the teacher mocks. “Yeah, sure.” Decades later, his intoxication with Shakespeare still inspires him to climb into selves unlike his own. He channels Desdemona’s thoughts of Othello: “For the fact that such as you so much as breathes I am jubilant. I feel you deeply, great and lovely thing, in my heart, and in my throat, and in my belly.”
Ironically, the actor himself is caught in a mistaken identity, like an unarmed black man stopped by police on a false suspicion. The young white director’s privilege blinds him to the possibility that the tall black actor might understand the tall black character better than he. The actor confronts him: “It will not grace my cause, nor Othello’s cause, the play’s cause, the American theatre’s cause, to pretend that I don’t know that you are frightened of me. You are afraid of me. I am afraid that nothing will ever change. And these are the forgeries of jealousy.”
The years take their toll, yet the actor has only to stretch out his muscular arms to show that his instrument — himself — remains a finely wrought splendor. As a young man he knew he was an actor in the same sense that a person is gay. It was in him, it was him. He makes himself vulnerable because that is what an actor does, because he has insights from a lifetime in the theatre. We open ourselves in return. The American Moor will not stifle us. He offers wisdom: “Show me you have half the courage of a Desdemona and I will lift you, in life and love, in death and despair…. We will lift each other and this American form.”
Our theatre, like our nation, remains vital despite the blind folly of some. Keith Hamilton Cobb shows us its beating heart. His boldness and resilient hope encourage our own.
Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2015 by Richard J. Rosendall. All rights reserved.