‘American Moor’ runs through Oct. 5 at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St., redbulltheater.org.
In Keith Hamilton Cobb’s small but sweeping 90-minute performance piece “American Moor,” a middle-aged African American actor’s audition for the role of Othello turns into an emotionally charged meditation on racial identity and unconscious racism in Shakespeare and theater practice.
“American Moor” is being produced at Off-Broadway’s Cherry Lane Theatre in the West Village by Red Bull Theater, an alternative and scrappy classics company that is best known for its over-the-top productions of gory Jacobean thrillers.
The play starts off with the unnamed actor (Cobb) pacing the stage as he reviews the script of “Othello” in apparent frustration and unease. The unfinished set (apparently for a traditional production of “Othello”) includes enormous columns and the statue of a winged lion.
With a sonorous voice and a graceful sense of movement, the actor suddenly strikes up a conversation with the audience. He explains why Shakespeare appealed to him as a younger man and recalls an experience with an acting teacher who only wanted him to work on Shakespeare’s limited lot of explicitly black characters.
While the biographical one-man show format can often feel antiquated and derivative, Cobb is compelling to listen to. But tension arrives with the sudden emergence of an unseen director (played by Josh Tyson), who is sitting among the audience and is the person that Cobb is auditioning for. (I sat right behind Tyson and thus only saw the back of his head.)
In between pieces of broken conversation, in which Tyson tries to explain his thoughts on “Othello” and Cobb begins his formal audition, Cobb keeps returning to the audience (with Tyson frozen in place) to deconstruct the situation and explain his anger and humiliation, culminating in a final confrontation and an abrupt, questionable ending.
Cobb emphasizes that he does not wish to be hostile to the director, who did him no personal harm. Rather, he wishes that the director (a young, unintentionally pompous white man) could come out of his protected shell and try to understand Cobb’s experiences and point of view.
Directed by Kim Weild, “American Moor” tackles the goal of many theater companies to be in active conversation with the classics — rather than simply revive them with an uncritical eye — and find inspired ways to make them feel relevant in today’s world. The issues presented in the play (which might be acknowledged by theater artists in private) deserve to be directly confronted onstage, too.
Bottom line: Keith Hamilton Cobb delivers a compelling turn in this deeply felt meditation on Shakespeare and racism.