"American Moor": A Shout That Descends Into A Sob
The house was packed — emphasis on packed. Crushed and crowded in the theatre foyer, expectant viewers of Keith Hamilton Cobb’s American Moor proved that not every Sunday afternoon is as easy as a Sunday morning. With nearly every seat filled, the show was sold out, attesting to both students’ and faculty’s high expectations which only seemed to grow in Mount Holyoke College’s Rooke theatre, judging by the excited buzz. And did American Moor live up to its expectations? I say: yes.
Written and performed by Keith Hamilton Cobb and directed by Kim Weild, American Moor was everything that I expected it to be: an angry shout that descends into a sob, where a man is shattered, confused and trapped by a society that needs to confine bodies and identities in neat little boxes. American Moor centers on the experiences of an African-American actor attempting to navigate the predominantly white world of American theatre. The audience is privy to the character’s thoughts, emotions and overall inner-turmoil as he is confronted with racism in the audition room and American society, embodied by Shakespeare’s Othello, which has its own complicated past and present. The immersive element of American Moor was astounding, given its simplicity. Lighting was a huge element of this production: moving in and out of the mind of Hamilton Cobb’s character, we are pulled into and out of our own worlds to connect with the man on stage. There was also the shadowy figure of the white male director sitting among the audience, making our own selves invisible to the scene unfolding beneath us.
While the production was magnificent in its emotional depth and artistry, there were moments that made me question the view we were so deeply steeped. Although I understand that the play is centered around the raw, uncensored thoughts and emotions of the African-American actor in a white world, I also understand that world is more complicated than simply “us” versus “them.” In the end, Cobb’s fed-up actor pleads with the director to begin a dialogue — to meet in the middle and to find understanding between the two disparate worlds of black actor and white director. The director declines and we are left disheartened — but not surprised — by his expected answer. How are we to expect the director to act any differently? Hamilton Cobb’s character constantly closes himself off from dialogue; attacks the system that traps him in a role and never seeks to find solutions to his problem, only battles with himself over his lack of choice. If Cobb’s character really wanted dialogue, he would not mindlessly attack both himself and the director, who stands in for the privileged white male space in Shakespearean theatre.
And perhaps this is what Hamilton Cobb wants us to focus on: the unreliability of a man who is not willing to meet in that gray middle. Yes, he is the victim of a racist system that keeps him in a cycle of anger and despair, but we also only get his side of the story. What of the other sides? Of the female actresses who play Desdemona? Or the white directors who do decide to direct productions of Othello? What about the interracial couples who experience similar prejudice as Desdemona does by Hamilton Cobb’s character, who characterizes her as having a fetish for black men? In the end, American Moor left me and audience members with many questions to ponder, most of them difficult, but also with a sense that we had watched a gritty, painful, complex and thought-provoking scream.