September 16, 2019
As the audience enters, American Moor’s playwright and primary performer Keith Hamilton Cobb spends a good deal of time pensively pacing his Wilson Chin-designed set – a sparse collection of chairs and two Corinthian columns, the one of which not tasked with holding a griffin conveniently toppled to the ground. Against the bricks bordering Cherry Lane Theater’s playing space, the mise en scene emits a fluid sense of backstage, onstage, and elsewhere, able to contain the manipulations of presence necessary for Cobb to illustrate his relationship to the notion of playing Shakespeare's Othello.
You don’t expect it from the intensity of his pre-show or the size of his biceps, but Cobb is an effortlessly convincing shape-shifter. He must be as he tasks himself to morph between his younger self, his acting teachers, some fleeting blips of Shakespeare, and his own reflection of the black vernacular he grew up in. It is as his present self, however, that Cobb demonstrates the most dimension. His actorly presentation is supremely articulate, deeply resonant, and satisfyingly thwarted by occasionally cracked smiles and boyish giggles.
It is often the case that these expressions of levity are in reaction to the more frustrating aspects of his story, namely Cobb’s visual presentation having been met by teachers and directors with, perhaps unintended but nonetheless tangible, attempts to limit his performative potential – the expectation to perform Othello through an unfortunately white lens.
This plays out in a suddenly Chorus Line-esque staging of Josh Tyson, seated among us, as a director, white-mansplaining his vision of the Othello for which Cobb is auditioning. Tyson wants Act I, Scene 3’s speech to the Senate played with a kind of amusing subservience, which elicits in Cobb a psychosomatic gag reflex of blanking on text he knows by heart.
As the exchange unfolds, Cobb spends increasingly little time in the actual audition room, as every utterance from Tyson hurls him into a mental flurry of indignance Shakespearianly staged by Kim Weild as though to make up for all the verse we would love to though never hear. These shifts are aided by Alan C. Edwards’ lighting, establishing spaces with reliable clarity, which, alongside Cobb’s equally autonomous channel-changing, allows us to feel just as transported.
The question becomes, which space is primary, and which the aside? The piece’s initial home base is unquestionably the present day Cobb telling his story in classic solo show form. The audition, however, literally colonizes the dramaturgical structure into a narrative play wherein Cobb must resist alienation within his own piece. It is then we understand Cobb’s charming shape-shifting to truly be the theatre of societal survival, ultimately forsaken for the sake of a character who demands better.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews