BOSTON - The first thing a viewer sees on entering The Plaza Theater at the Boston Center for the Arts is an actor alternately prowling the stage, bent over doing warm-ups and lounging for a moment against one of the inconvenient pillars that break up the playing space. When the play begins and the actor turns to face the audience to speak, we hear a beautifully modulated, deep voice that erupts in fury, drips with sarcasm or patiently explains his place in our society. His manner of re-telling has been honed by years of theatrical training, informed by the emotional truth of his reactions.
Such is our welcome to the cosmos of Keith Hamilton Cobb, playwright and actor of “American Moor,” who leads us through nearly two hours of his accumulated thoughts, feelings and anger at being an American, an American actor, and a 6-foot-4-inch black man living in America. Watching this consummate actor, carefully directed in his autographical piece by Kim Weild, it is difficult to know where his life experience rules or his knowledge of the craft takes over. Either way, the evening is an awe-inspiring marvel inspiring thoughts that linger well after the lights come down.
The theme of the play is a tangle between Cobb’s background and William Shakespeare’s play “Othello,” intertwined with an analysis of the character of the Moor. As Cobb explains, he came to love Shakespeare as a young student by seeing one of the plays acted on stage after reading the works in school. He realized that Shakespeare wrote for the stage, not to create a body of literature. Cobb found his calling and wanted to tackle the roles: Tatiana in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” King Richard or Hamlet, but was steered instead to the minor black men of the plays, and, of course, to “Othello,” to cap his career. At first he was incensed that white directors could see him as an unbalanced black man who would allow himself to be goaded by a villain to murder his beloved wife. Gradually he came to explore the character more deeply and understand that his own anger would shape Othello’s psyche.
“American Moor” is set up as an actor’s audition, with Cobb, identified in the program as Actor, roaming the stage in the spotlight while holding a well-worn copy of “Othello” in his hand. The other character in the play is the disembodied voice of a seemingly young and white director, giving him superficial instructions (Matt Arnold who is never seen on stage). The voice is somewhere out there in the darkened theater, which makes us complicit in the director’s attitude toward the Actor, who is trying out for the role of Othello.
As both the playwright and a person of color, Cobb makes it clear that he understands Othello very well in the character’s need to placate the Venetian senators who hired him, and Brabantio, the father of the woman he has married, but is “forever snarling at his chain’s end.” Equating Othello’s suppressed emotions with those of his own as an actor in a profession ruled by white men whom he must please to be hired, Cobb takes us on a journey that enlarges to reflect the issues of race in America and the continued experiences of other men of color. The telling gesture by the end is Cobb’s pounding of his chest at his heart, to emphasize the common humanity among all men.
Despite Cobb’s talent as an actor, “American Moor” is flawed by its repetitions and a roller coaster of a theatrical arc, rather than a sustained build and final tapering off to the end. The work would be strengthened by some judicious cutting to make the overall effect even stronger. But never mind. Cobb’s merger of his career with the white man’s expectations of “Othello” as a dream role for every black actor make an evening of theater that one will long remember, even more than the continued disgrace of racial incidents studding the evening broadcasts of the news.
O.W.I. (Bureau of Theatre) & Phoenix Theatre Ensemble present “American Moor” at The Plaza Theater, Boston Center for the Arts, through Aug. 12. Tickets are $35. Info: 617-933-8600; bostontheatrescene.com.