“American Moor”: The Black Man And The Play

Presented by ArtsEmerson
Written and Performed by Keith Hamilton Cobb
Directed by Kim Weild
Lighting Design by Alan C. Edwards

April 10 – 21, 2019
Emerson Paramount Theatre
Boston, MA
ArtsEmerson on Facebook

Critique by Diana Lu

(Boston, MA) American Moor is a masterpiece of a one-man show. Written and performed by accomplished actor Keith Hamilton Cobb, the 90 minute monologue portrays the interior narrative of an overqualified black actor as he goes through yet another disheartening audition to play Shakespeare’s Othello for yet another clueless white Director (Josh Tyson). The descriptive prowess of Cobb’s blow-by-blow detail plays out like The Old Man and the Sea. His impressive acting chops create some of the most intense, emotionally raw, and true to life moments I’ve ever seen on any stage, including The Globe Theater in London.

Though Cobb’s performance outshines all else, I also appreciated the positioning of the Director among the (mostly white) audience, insinuating our complicity with each obliviously pretentious microaggression. The lighting design was canny and economical, functionally a narrator taking us from past to present, inside Cobb’s mind to the audition room, the theatre class, the stage and back.

That said, I was wholly discomfited by the entire show, and maybe that was the point. Those 90 minutes were exhausting for me to watch, and I can’t even imagine how difficult it is to play out trauma like that night after night. It made me angry to see this show because it’s so clear how spectacularly Cobb has mastered his field, and I think, we honestly don’t deserve to see this. We deserve to see Cobb starring in blockbuster movies, on red carpets, doing cute interviews with Ellen. We don’t deserve to see this carefully documented real-time journey through his pain, each inflection of injustice explained so eloquently, portrayed with such exquisite acumen. We’ve done nothing to deserve Cobb’s emotional labor. It feels like watching emotional vivisection. I’m angry that he has to gouge out his heart and dissect it on a stage to finally have a role worthy of his skill.

I was annoyed at the framing of race itself, Cobb using Othello as a parallel of his experiences in the white theatre establishment. The concept of race as it is today in America didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s day. Whiteness, Blackness, the one-drop rule, were “scientific” inventions created to justify chattel slavery, which was only in its nascency when Shakespeare wrote Othello. Cobb’s racialized experiences as a black man in 20thcentury America doesn’t necessarily translate to Elizabethan England, and to say that it does both belies a certain, very American, arrogance and privilege of its own, as well as implies that the current iteration of white supremacist infrastructure is more eternal, universal, and perhaps biologically based that it actually is, which, ultimately, gives it too much power and too much credit.

Finally, as the performance ended, the couple next to me, white, middle-aged, upper middle class, remarked to each other, “That was so powerful. So, so powerful.” It kind of reminded me of when Dave Chappelle heard a white man laughing at his comedy a little too hard, a revelation that led him to quit the industry for a decade. I’m disturbed by the overwhelming praise from white liberal audiences, for whom this might be the catharsis of the week, the glowing write-ups from white reviewers, who write about it as if it’s the first time they’ve heard about racism in theatre. Is anything actually going to change? Is this white couple going to take note and demand better from their local theaters, call their legislators, check themselves, or is this it, they’re just going to go home and pat themselves on the back for having “done their part”?

That’s the unsettling question that haunts me, weeks after seeing American Moor. Is this performance of racial pain just a ritualized self-flagellation session for elite liberal audiences to assuage their white guilt? Is this a commodification of ethnic trauma for white liberals to consume while doing nothing to change the institutions that oppress Cobb and others? Is this the new minstrel show?

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