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American Moor

Raw anger and fear are like a senseless riot destroying any promise of this brilliantly conceived play on the casting of Othello.

Keith Hamilton Cobb in a scene from “American Moor” at Phoenix Theatre Ensemble (Photo credit: Gerry Goodstein)

Keith Hamilton Cobb in a scene from “American Moor” at Phoenix Theatre Ensemble (Photo credit: Gerry Goodstein)

Caleb Ryan

In all Shakespearian plays, there are many possible interpretations, of which Othello and the titled character are not exempt. This year Phoenix Theatre Ensemble adds to their repertory an attempt to demystify the casting experience of The Moor in a much contrived commentary on race relations, Shakespeare and the modern theater. With the Baltimore riots all too real in today’s society and constant social unrest towards racial equality, there is certainly a place in theater and the arts to express opinion and perspective on burning social issues. Therefore, the premise of American Moor written and performed by Keith Hamilton Cobb is greeted with much anticipation by its first audiences here in New York City.

A play that has much opportunity to expose the relationship of casting director with actor, not merely across the table but across racial backgrounds and stereotypes begins as it promises. Enter Cobb, a large black man, anxiously awaiting the call of the casting assistant as he proceeds to unapologetically disturb the entire waiting room with his nervous behavior. The thought of playing Othello brings back memories of his youth and a single theater teacher unwilling to allow him to play any role other than that which he might be traditionally cast in for an assignment. As the character’s exposition is beginning to evolve, the casting agent interrupts us. We can tell the actor has an agenda to prove; that now as a grown man in this audition things will be different.

The voice of a middle-aged casting agent (Josh Tyson) would remind any seasoned actor of the stereotyped white American. This one surprisingly has the nicest temperament, with patience unheard of; consider this the first questioning of plausibility. Per procedure, the actor presents his sides giving his take on Othello. Unable to impress the casting director he is then given the opportunity to make adjustments, at which point the actor looses his control. At this moment, all character development, story and craft are removed from the play and you would not be blamed for making a quick exit of the theater.

Deafening shouting fills the room as Cobb is overcome with a rage and seems to forget both the audience and sensitivities of his craft. Any relatable emotion is lost to an audience that cannot bring their own personal lives to the situation, as it is clear the author/actor does not believe the audience is capable of empathy to his plight. This one-note, exasperating unloading of anger, however, has no subtlety and begs the question where was director Paul Kwame Johnson whose job it was to bring to life a message that does live within the script. Absent.

Keith Hamilton Cobb in a scene from “American Moor” at the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble (Photo credit: Gerry Goodstein) 

Keith Hamilton Cobb in a scene from “American Moor” at the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble (Photo credit: Gerry Goodstein)

Cobb who is lauded in the program by his daytime television credits in All My Children and The Young and the Restless seems incapable of anything more than soap opera acting and hopefully does not leave a mark on the mission of the Phoenix Theater Ensemble who should been commended for their openness in breathing life into such a brilliantly conceived piece however poorly executed.

Given the author’s decision that his audience is incapable of empathy, as the play continues there is no further information afforded on the life and experience of the actor growing up or working as an African American. There is neither journey presented nor relationship with the audience. Rather the actor boasts an entitlement to our attention given the color of the performer’s skin. The greatest flaw of the play is in the character deciding that he knows how best to play Othello based purely on his race matching that of the Spanish Moor. The actor’s behavior is entirely antithetical to that of Othello, a man of nobility and dignity. Cobb instead bastardizes his chances of being truly seen as Othello by his own self-loathing, whining and petty reverse racism.

Producing artistic director Craig Smith questions whether we are truly open and accepting to diversity in theater. Truly, we don’t yet have equality. Yet the poor acting choices and entitlement apparent in this work can only take us backwards in respect to African American performers. There is no question that where true talent exists it shines through despite racial hurdles as is the case for the theater’s beloved Audra McDonald, Norm Lewis, Ciara Renee or film’s Denzel Washington or the Lupita Nyong’os of this world.

The lighting design by Tsubasa Kamei was sufficient to the play and served the concept well.

Overall, the play is bashful and unrefined. Cobb’s character certainly holds no appreciation of Shakespearian acting, no matter how truthfully the lines of Othello may speak to his life. The play uses a promising concept as a plea for your attention and unforgivingly uses shame and racial slander to keep you in your seats through the end of the play. Although present were moments of raw emotion and truth Cobb does not have the stamina to carry this solo performance. The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble’s production of American Moor has succeeded in creating a forum to discuss racism, but they have failed in creating art. 

American Moor (April 21-25, May 5-10, 2015)

Phoenix Theatre Ensemble

The Wild Project, 195 East 3rd Street, between Avenue A and Avenue B, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit http://www.PheonixTheatreEnsemble.org

Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission

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