October 14, 2020, by Peter Kirwan
American Moor (Red Bull Theatre) @ YouTube
I’ve had the pleasure already of reading and loving Keith Hamilton Cobb’s American Moor, but the opportunity to see the man himself perform the play via Zoom is too fantastic a one to pass up. In the space of digital theatre, a play that is so concerned with presence and gaze and disparities of experience might have been hard to imagine, but the medium actually works wonderfully, capturing the subtleties of Cobb’s performance and the textures of his complex relationship with Othello.
In the space of Zoom, the screen is initially evenly split between three faces: those of Cobb, Josh Tyson (who plays The Director), and Ayana Workman (who reads the stage directions). When Cobb’s Actor goes into his monologues, though, his frame expands to fill most of the screen, drawing us visibly and spatially into an intimate co-presence with him. Yet even when he is in his version of soliloquy, Tyson and Workman remain visible. It’s a different arrangement to what the text imagines, with Cobb alone onstage while the Director sits somewhere behind the audience. Yet their presence is powerful. Tyson isn’t always looking at the screen, but the constant reminder of the white man places even Cobb’s most personal moments as subject in some way to the potential watching white gaze. And Workman, looking askance at the camera, reacts subtly to Cobb’s exploration of his relationship to Othello, sometimes quietly smiling, sometimes stony-faced, sharing in his anger and his passion. I often found myself surprisingly watching these two opposing reactions, triangulating my own response to Cobb.
But it’s hard to stray from Cobb’s face for too long. American Moor is a minor miracle of a play, a deeply felt and intricate exploration of the power dynamics of America/Europe, Director/Actor, White/Black, Othello/Cobb. Heard in the author’s own voice, Cobb’s Actor is paradoxically both entirely in control and also out of control, his fast shifts between tone and style, between dizzying scholarly commentary and felt emotional response the work of a consummate performer, yet also creating an impression of freeform thinking that smashes up against the audition situation the actor is in. The tension between the Actor’s audition speech and Cobb’s disquisition feels palpable in performance, his anger threatening to break the setting, to smash out of the conventions of soliloquy and jeopardise his employment opportunity.
Cobb’s management of tone is particularly enlightening when it can be heard, not just read. He has his classical voice, his style of speaking Shakespeare that the Director accuses of sounding like he’s trying to be English. There’s his reasoning voice, when the character draws on his research in the OED and his knowledge of the scholarship to play the director at his own game. Then there’s his voice of anger, when his East Coast accent comes out more strongly and he peppers his language with AAVE, while still keeping Shakespeare interwoven. And there’s his American voice, a voice during which Cobb draws himself up and speaks with pride and defiance. All of these voices and more interweave and overlap, the tones articulating the conflicted identities that Cobb negotiates throughout American Moor even as he negotiates with the Director. While we might imagine much of this happening in his head during the short audition, the insight into the conflicting pressures and histories gives weight to his lived experience as a large, American, Black man.
As important, though, are his silences. Tyson does great work as the Director, leaning in close to the camera and putting on a voice of reason and expectation as he tells Cobb what it’s like to be a Black man, what it’s like to play Othello, what Othello would be feeling. Sometimes Cobb just lets those words land, as he sits there, eyes staring forward, momentarily speechless as he processes not just the words that the Director has spoken, but everything that underpins those words, all the histories of presumption and oppression and normalisation of inequities that allow this young white man to tell him his business. The text is too rich to do full justice to in a short blog, but what comes across in performance is the Actor’s desire. His desire to respond and say what he really thinks; his desire to protest and object regardless of the cost to the job that he wants; and, in his final, compelling, thrilling speech, his desire to work with the Director, to bring even just this one white man along with him, to DO THIS, and do it right. The long pause before the Director says ‘Thank you. Thank you for coming in’ is filled with tension, instantly deflated as the Actor hears the words which speak, once more, of a failure – of theatre, of white America, of Shakespeare – to listen and learn.
In some ways – and this is no criticism – American Moor gets to have its cake and eat it, by treating us to Cobb’s confident, nuanced Othello, and also critiquing the terms on which Cobb’s Actor is allowed to create that Othello. The Actor’s story of his own resistance to that role while, at the same time, being drawn back to its quality and then being knocked back again by the character’s journey, all speak to a tension that the conditions of American theatre don’t seem able to be able to find the space to reconcile. Cobb’s American Moor gives hope that a peace, a purpose, a mission might be found in the connection between actor and role, but within an institution governed by Eurocentric and white norms, in which the Black man is made from the start to control his voice, manage his rage, divorce instinct from instruction, and fundamentally be restrained, that hope can’t yet be realised. American Moor itself is perhaps the most potent weapon that Cobb contributes to that fight, and needs to be required reading/viewing at least for every white director who’s got their own idea about the play. Maybe, just maybe, this play will change the terms of the conversation.