Prepare to be engaged in Cobb’s ‘American Moor’

Keith Hamilton Cobb in “American Moor.” Photo courtesy American Moor

BOSTON – Keith Hamilton Cobb was an English major at NYU when he fell in love with the work of a man who had died more than four centuries before.

Cobb’s relationship with Shakespeare – and one character in particular – is at the heart of “American Moor,” a co-production of O.W.I. (Bureau of Theatre) and the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble now at the Plaza Theatre of the Boston Center for the Arts through Aug. 12.

Cobb has written and performs the piece, and I can promise that if you attend, he will engage you, and question your attitudes and beliefs. Just as Cobb is out there all by himself putting himself on the line, he expects you as a member of the audience to be just as engaged as he is.

As theater-goers enter, Cobb is already seated onstage, with the set the bare backstage of a theater stripped of everything but a few theatrical props.

He holds a script of Shakespeare’s “Othello,” his main prop for the evening.

Much of “American Moor” is seen through the prism of Cobb’s relationship with one of Shakespeare’s iconic characters: Othello, the Moor and the general at the heart of the play of the same name.

That will be the entryway for his experiences in a profession dominated by whites, while confronting the biases and per-concieved notions that he has always been swimming upstream against.

One of the devices he uses to make his points is the dichotomy between what he wanted to say at a point in time, and then telling us what he actually said. The first is what he would have said had he not been a struggling young actor trying to gain a precious foothold in his craft.

The hallmark of “American Moor” is its intensity, intensity which never wavered for the entire 105 minutes (without intermission) of a recent performance

Cobb knocks down the fourth wall – nay, make that sledgehammers down that fourth wall – and commands the audience in a way I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a solo performance. Thanks to the intimacy of the Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts, he often finds himself almost in the audience, in constant motion, looking right into the eyes of audience members, and asking rhetorical questions that he will be answering.

In this manner, he hopes you are listening and seeing him – seeing him – for who he is, understanding where he came from and how that perspective came to be molded.

During the performance, there are spasms of righteous anger – oft directed at acting teachers and directors he has met along the way – juxtaposed with moments of quiet, reasoned reflection.

He keeps coming back to a character billed as the Actor, a large 52-year-old black man auditioning to play the part of “Othello” before a heard-but-not-seen young white director (Matt Arnold) who presumes to guide Cobb on the correct way to play the part.

He presents it all with the backdrop of race in America, how we react to one another, how we see and hear one another.

Cobb is conscious that as a black actor he is representing not only himself, but others, and others will be judged by what he is. “You stand in for so much, but I do, too, and I cannot just be me, for you are never, ever, only you.’’

With the intensity level so high for such a long period of time, there are thankfully moments leavened with humor – such as a story about him wanting to perform a passage from the fairy queen Titania from “A Mid-summer’s Night Dream” for a class.

The thought of him playing the character is funny, but it was never funny when, as so often happened, Cobb was sent in another direction – to the back of the bus – to portray Shakespeare’s minor characters of color.

Director Kim Weild undoubtedly aided the pacing, the ebb and flow that allow both Cobb and the audience to catch its breath from time to time.

Cobb, who has a BFA in acting from the Tisch School for the Arts at NYU, is a successful actor best known for his television work in series such as “All My Children,” “Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda,” “The Young and the Restless,” and the Logo network’s “Noah’s Arc,” and guest shots on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Boston Common,” “Suddenly Susan,” “One on One,” “The Twilight Zone,” and “CSI Miami.”

But he also has a powerful theatrical resume from work at prestigious regional theaters around the country and has satisfied his love for Shakespeare in works such as “Romeo and Juliet,” “Coriolanus,” “Hamlet,” and “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” – where he didn’t play Titania, but Oberon.

He has also taught and directed and worked with juvenile offenders in the New Jersey Correctional System.

If you do attend “American Moor,” be prepared, again, to be engaged, questioned, asked to account for yourself and others, and otherwise be consumed by one’s man finely-honed perspective on his world and his craft.

American Moor.” Written and performed by Keith Hamilton Cobb. Directed by Kim Weild. Presented by O.W.I. (Bureau of Theatre) and Phoenix Theatre Ensemble. At Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, through Aug. 12. Tickets: Bostontheatrescene.com

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