September 14, 2019

"American Moor" Confronts the White Gaze

Just about every theater company is wrestling with the questions of how to increase the diversity of their audiences and the representation on their stages. In the meantime, though, a growing number of black and brown theater makers are grappling directly with the white gaze that results from having predominantly white audiences view their work and mostly white arts administrators vet it.

Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview cleverly confronted its largely white audiences and won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama. And now American Moor, a meditation on how to interpret Shakespeare's Othello that played at the Wild Project five years ago, has returned in a Red Bull Theater production that is running at the Cherry Lane Theatre through Oct. 5.

I recognize that as a black woman, I'm probably not the target audience for these shows but they have caused me to think yet again about how complicated it can be to have these discussions about race. American Moor is written and performed by Keith Hamilton Cobb, an actor whose program bio suggests that he’s been most successful doing TV but who, he makes clear in this autobiographical show, has a longstanding love for Shakespeare.

Cobb, now 57, tells us that since his early acting days, he has yearned to play Hamlet, Romeo, Richard II, even A Midsummer Night Dream’s fairy queen Titania (click here to read more about the actor). But others have seen him differently.

Cobb’s tall, impressively chiseled physique (including cannonball-sized biceps); a resonant voice that reflects his classical training at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and the fact that he is black have made casting agents and directors for Shakespeare productions want to cast him almost solely as Othello. This nearly one-man show pivots around the fact that their vision of the character often conflicts with his.

American Moor simulates an audition in which Cobb nervously prowls the stage before the show actually begins. Once it starts, he performs bits of Othello’s speeches as he tries out to play the Moor in a production helmed by a white director (Josh Tyson) who is embedded in the audience and full of ideas about how the part should be played. 

But most of the action takes place inside the auditioning actor’s mind as interior monologues that, aided by Alan C. Edwards' lighting and Christian Frederickson's soundscape, he delivers to the audience, comparing Othello’s life to his own and fuming about a young white guy telling an older black guy how to portray one of the most famous black guys in the theatrical canon.

Many of Cobb’s observations are insightful. He draw parallels between Othello and contemporary African-American achievers like Colin Powell and even Barack Obama, who simultaneously recognize their own strengths and that those strengths—be they physical or intellectual—may be seen as threats to the whites who surround them and who have expectations about the behavior of black men.

Meanwhile, the director wants Othello portrayed as an insecure man whose feelings of inadequacy and a compulsion to prove his manhood eventually boil over into murderous rage. It might seem a subtle difference but it’s a significant one: the tension between the way black people see themselves and the way white people, even well-meaning ones, see them.

Some critics, all of them white men, have complained that the actor’s response is out of proportion to what the director asks him to do. Having often been in similar situations myself, I understood what the actor was feeling. I just wish that Cobb had found a way to make his point more concisely. Instead under the direction of Kim Weild, who is, ironically, a white woman, he repeats the same arguments over and over, making the show’s 85 minutes seem far longer than they are.

Not that the audience seemed to mind. More integrated than is often the case for small off-Broadway shows, the audience at the performance my husband K and I attended was still majority white. And some of them seemed to be competing with one another to show how much they were in on the message that Cobb was trying to get across. The white woman seated behind me kept uh-huhing her approval as though she were at a church revival. Others leapt out of their seats to lead the curtain call.

It seemed to me as though they hadn’t really thought through what Cobb was saying, hadn’t fully considered whether they’d ever “othered” black or brown people themselves, hadn’t realized that Cobb might be describing their behavior. But I suppose I could be accused of the same kind of pigeonholing as I write here about them. As I said, talking about race is complicated.

September 7, 2019

The Oddly Experimental Experiences Of "Bad Penny" and "Sincerity Forever"

If you go to the theater regularly enough, you eventually figure out what kinds of show appeal to you and which don’t.  My sister is an unabashed fan of jukebox musicals. My best friend likes naturalistic plays, especially those that make him cry. Another friend prefers shows—be they straight plays or musicals—that center around characters who are gay or people of color.  

I like to fancy myself open to all different kinds of theatrical experiences.  But I have to admit that I do have a hard time with experimental theater.  So every once in a while, I try to push myself outside my comfort zone by seeing some experimental or performance art piece. Which is how I found myself at The Flea Theater seeing a double bill that is part of the five-play Perfect Catastrophes Festival that The Flea is dedicating this fall to the playwright Mac Wellman (click here to read more about him).

One of the original co-founders of The Flea, Wellman is known for what a critic once described as work that “rebels against theatrical conventions, often abandoning such traditional elements as plot and character altogether.” 

That is a big challenge for someone like me who thrives on narrative. And that must have been apparent because during the one-hour break between the two shows, another reviewer violated the critics’ code of not talking about a show while you’re in the theater and ambled over to ask me what I thought of what we’d just seen. As I told him, I’m not sure.

The first of the two plays is Bad Penny, which was created as a site-specific piece that was performed in Central Park when it premiered in 1989. It involves a guy who is trying to get his car tire fixed, a woman who has a penny that she believes brings bad luck and the different kinds of New Yorkers they encounter.

The actors playing the New Yorkers are embedded in the audience and so part of the experience is figuring out who’s going to speak out next—and who to listen to since several conversations go on at the same time. 

At one point, a silent Golem-like character, who is listed on the one-sheet program as “Boatman,” appears and dominates the action.  I guessed he’s supposed to be death. But who knows?

The cast, directed by Kristan Seemel is composed primarily of members of the Flea’s resident company The Bats and their acting is up and down, with some Bats seeming to be as befuddled by what was going on as I was.

Still, the show is done in the outdoor courtyard of The Flea’s relatively new home on Thomas Street in Tribeca. It was a summery evening the night I saw it, sitting on one of the lawn chairs arrayed around the space (later comers had to settle for blankets on the floor) and the 45 minutes passed pleasantly enough and might have done so even more if I’d gotten a drink at the cash bar set up in the corner before the performance began.

I’m not sure why the break between the shows was an hour long because Sincerity Forever, the second part of the bill, was performed inside in the small underground space known as The Siggy, in honor of Flea co-founder Sigourney Weaver, and performed by an entirely different and, under the direction of Dina Vovsi, a somewhat more skilled group of actors.

The set-up for this 1990 play is a fictional southern town, populated by Christian zealots, hood-wearing Ku Klux Klan members and, strangest of all, Jesus who in this incarnation is both black and female. 

The satire here is more obvious (characters keep insisting that any behavior should be considered acceptable so long as it's sincere). And, of course, it's sadly more relevant. 

After the initial unease of seeing the hood-clad actors wore off a bit, the audience seemed more into this show than those seeing Bad Penny had been. Me too.  At least I think so.