The veteran actor channels and questions a bard four centuries gone, like the New Horizons probe reporting back to earth amid the cosmic noise from four billion miles away—though unlike manned missions, the probe didn’t stop to plant a flag as it passed Ultima Thule, an asteroid from the early solar system. Some claim possession of Shakespeare as they would a continent or a lunar crater, guarding their turf like gentrifiers calling police on black neighbors.
Keith Hamilton Cobb challenges this proprietorship, bringing his passionate, probing American Moor back to Washington’s Anacostia Playhouse as Democrats retake the House of Representatives. Cobb took his play last year to London, Boston, and West Orange, New Jersey, portraying a tall, powerfully built, handsome black thespian in middle age auditioning for Othello.
The tension in the audition room resonates with that of our nation’s history and its roiling present: the white director thinks he knows the large black protagonist better than the large black man standing before him. Confiding in the audience, the actor makes them his compatriots. Starring in his own play, Cobb critiques American regional theatre and its racial myopia from the inside as one who has loved Shakespeare since his youth—an actor who can do anything, his agent assures him, but whose prospective employers only see him as one thing.
“[T]hroughout my American life, whenever some white person, well-meaning or otherwise, has asked me to ‘be open’ they have invariably meant, ‘See it my way.’ And in this instance, in this play, that is unacceptable.” He recognized his acting vocation early the way a person knows he’s gay. Decades later, his seasoned brain and instrument have much to lend the enterprise, but the young director, confident he knows Shakespeare’s intentions because he studied under a teacher twice removed from a Brit, is not as collaborative.
Lacking a time machine to allow consultation with a dead playwright, we can only interpret him through ourselves. As with the casting of Hamilton, our cultural inheritance crosses the human spectrum. Is Jessye Norman less glorious a soprano than Elisabeth Schwarzkopf on account of pigment?
“You are afraid of me,” Cobb tells the director. He is an envoy from an unfamiliar world all around us. In our fear of displacement we squander our most precious resource: one another.
There are people who feed on brokenness, who feel diminished or threatened by others’ strength or wisdom. But we cannot thrive on smallness. To make the work sing, the actor knows, requires bringing all of himself to it.
Independent film’s low budgets gave black filmmakers like Ryan Coogler and Barry Jenkins freedom to tell their stories their way rather than subsume their projects to the whims of indifferent studio bosses. Their success offers a transformative moment at whose heart are artists holding to their visions and self-belief. In a similar spirit, the actor in Moor prods the director to risk all for love, like Desdemona—in this case love of the play, love of theatre.
At the start of the most diverse Congress in history, Nancy Pelosi invoked President Reagan’s farewell address. Reagan said of his “shining city upon a hill,” “[I]f there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.” We have slid so far, Reagan sounds liberal. The “heterogeneous 116th” has only begun to fight.
The current spate of black film auteurs recalls the enrichment of Hollywood by German filmmakers who fled the Nazis in the 1930s, and the migrants whom Trump now slanders like a cut-rate Iago poisoning his marks’ minds. The voices we need most, in the arts as in our imperiled republic, are often those we are least inclined to welcome.
Flexing still-powerful sinews, the actor urges: “Please… put down your little brief authority, as you are certainly most ignorant of what you are most assured, and talk with me.” At stake are not just line readings but the very things pledged in Philadelphia in 1776: “our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
American Moor, directed by Kim Weild, is at Anacostia Playhouse from Jan. 11 through Feb. 3.
Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2019 by Richard J. Rosendall. All rights reserved.