Two Off-Broadway Gems – “Give Me Your Hand” and “American Moor” — If They Reappear, Make Sure You Catch Them

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By Karen Isaacs

The Irish Rep and the Red Bull Theatre recently streamed two gems. The shows, Give Me Your Hand and American Moor were available much too briefly; let us fervently wish that they will reappear.

Give Me Your Hand was filmed at the National Gallery of London, though the Irish Rep had presented it live on stage in 2012. It is a reading of the poems of Paul Durcan, a well-known and popular Irish poet. The subtitle of the piece is A Stroll through the National Gallery of London. Why? Because each of the poems was inspired by a painting at the National Gallery.

Two of Ireland’s leading actors, Dermot Crowley and Dearbhla Molloy stand at podiums while the inspiration painting is shown in the background. It might not seem theatrical, but it definitely is.

Durcan, doesn’t just describe the painting or the scene that it depicts, but instead uses the work as a kite into his imagination. He creates stories around them or relates them to modern times. Thus a painting by Gainsborough becomes the story of a young wife who murders her husband and a painting of a Belgium couple turns into a modern couple, he a poet.

Crowley and Molloy don’t just read. They perform these works, becoming the characters in the paintings and in the poems, carrying on conversations and totally absorbing us in the stories that Durcan has created.

It is magical blend of poetry, art and theater.

A very different work was presented by the Red Bull Theatre: American Moor by playwright and actor Keith Hamilton Cobb who gives a subtle and nuanced performance. Red Bull live streamed the production that they had presented off—Broadway in 2019. (A production of the play at London’s Globe Theatre was filmed and is being  shown online).

American Moor, was relevant in 2013 when it was written, but in 2020 it is even more relevant. Cobb plays an African American actor of middle age who has had a good but not stellar career. He is preparing to and then auditioning for the part of Othello, the Moor. The director, beautifully played by Josh Tyson, is a mid-thirties white male.

The play combines the actor’s actual audition and interaction with the director, who has his own  concept of the role, and the actor’s internal dialogue. His thoughts remember his early days in acting school when he was only considered for those parts that were identifiably black to the stereotype roles that he is asked to play so often. He has reached a point in his career where these are gnawing at him.

As he prepares and as he listens to the director’s sometimes inane ideas, he becomes both frustrated and angry that those who do not have any true experience think they know so much about a character like Othello.  The director wants him to read the scene in the Senate where Othello explains how he wooed and won Desdemona in a humble almost obsequious way. The actor believes this interpretation is totally misguided and that Othello knew his worth to the Venetian Senators and would not “bow and scrape.”

Watching him struggle between wanting to proof himself adaptable as an actor and to get the part but to also be true to his vision and his reality, is fascinating. Not only black actors have this experience. Surely many actors performs roles in ways they feel are totally misguided.

But in today’s society, when so many of us are becoming more and more aware of what we don’t know and probably may never be able to truly know, American Moor gives some insight that we sorely need.

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