Karamu’s ‘American Moor’ is a fascinating revelation of the theater process




As the audience is seating themselves and getting comfortable they are greeted with Actor Keith Hamilton Cobb (playing the actor) walking around the stage filled with various props for what one might assume is a production of Othello. He is a tall middle aged black man and a well muscled figure. Cobb walks the stage with a book containing the Shakespearean work of Othello in hand as he prepares himself for an audition.

Suddenly, he breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to the audience telling what it was like for a young black actor whose dream was only to play Shakespeare. We hear about his experience with “method acting” and the challenges it entailed. When tasked with taking on a Shakespearean role he chooses Titania, the fairy queen in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” simply for the challenge. His instructor instead talks him out of it and pushes that he try “Othello.” The type casting upset him.

There is a shift of light and a brief deep whooshing sound as Josh Tyson (playing the director) calls out from the middle of the audience. What ensues is a battle of the wills as both men have their own “correct” interpretation of how to play the Moor. It gives the audience a fly on the wall view of the tension that exists between actor and director as they are introduced to each other.

There is almost a schizophrenic feel as Cobb switches personalities. One minute he is the attentive actor listening intently to the director in an attempt to get into the man’s head concerning his interpretation of the role. With a shift of light and the deep whoosh sound he is speaking his mind directly to the audience telling how the role needs to be done in order to be faithful to the 400 year old script. There is very frank adult language involved.

Cobb wants to play the role as an angry and disturbed warrior who is grudgingly allowed to mingle with polite white society in Italy even though he married Desdemona, a young and beautiful white girl of high Venetian society. He is a great general bringing riches to the cities and country he fights for yet according to the actor there will never be any statues of him raised in the piazzas. This angers both the general and the actor.

The actor also wishes to show strength with the general physically lifting his wife, Desdemona as he is killing her. Then there is the speech before the Senate where Cobb’s wish is to again show his power and even belligerence. The director on the other hand wants to put on “Othello-Lite” with the general being more taciturn to the point of playing a fool to the senate chambers.

Cobb is well aware of the fact that he is being judged as to whether he is a good fit for the role. In actor mode he tries to placate and please the director in order to get the gig. On the other hand he wants to take a life time of experience as an actor and a black man playing an angry black general and make the role truly his own. Throughout the play, Shakespeare’s words ring out giving strength to Cobb’s argument in his head but he caves when taken back to the real life communication with the director. It is only at the end of the play (90 minutes with no intermission) that Cobb breaks free of his inner voice and tells the director what is truly on his mind. You can feel the inner anguish from the actor’s perspective of “what needs to be said vs. what can be said” as the battle within his soul takes place on stage.

Keith Hamilton Cobb is a classically trained actor well known for his work in theater and television as well as the playwright of this play. He is a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts with a BFA in acting, whose regional theater credits include such prestigious venues as The Actors Theatre of Louisville, The Shakespeare Theatre of Washington DC, The Denver Theatre Center, The Huntington Theatre Company, The Orlando Shakespeare Festival, The Geva Theatre Center and many others. He has performed such classical roles as Laertes in Hamlet, Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet, Tullus Aufidius in Coriolanus, Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as more contemporary roles in David Mamet’s Race, August Wilson’s Jitney, and Lynn Nottage’s Ruined.

Concerning the role of director, Josh Tyson has been involved with “American Moor” since its first production. He is the perfect antagonist who ignores the questions of race and simply wishes to do Othello “his way” whether that way is true to the original spirit of the work or not. Up to a point, both men are correct and at some point one would hope for a common meeting ground that both are comfortable with. The show is directed by Kim Weild who has worked with both actors in past staging of this production.

During an interview with Michael Van Osch, Keith had this to say about the play. “(“American Moor”) is a study of how we in America are choosing to navigate or just as often, not navigate these overwhelming and overlying issues of race. They sort of govern all that the country does, particularly in this historical moment. It is a piece that really sits at the intersection of race, Shakespeare and the American theater and attempts to unpack what American theater is for.”

It is refreshing to get a fresh interpretation of the Black situation as it applies to the theater and art. Words written over 400 years ago by Shakespeare come back to ring true in these days of struggle and Black Lives Matter. This show is a melding of classical and contemporary ideas flowing together that will fascinate all who go to see it. Be amazed.

“American Moor” will be on stage in the Jelliffe Theatre at Karamu House, 2355 E. 89th Street, Cleveland, Ohio through May 29, 2022. For more information and tickets go to https://www.karamuhouse.org/ or call (216) 795-7077.

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Who is Mark Horning?

Over the course of my life I have worked a variety of jobs including newspapers, retail camera sales and photography. Eight years ago I embarked on yet another career as writer. This included articles concerning sports and cultural events in Cleveland, Ohio as well reviews of the many theatrical productions around town. These days are spent photographing professional dance groups, theater companies and various galas and festivals as well as attending various stage performances and posting reviews about them.