Keith Hamilton Cobb loves Shakespeare. If he didn’t, there would be far less in “American Moor,” his acclaimed two-actor play about racism in American theater.
The award-winning work, which ran off-Broadway in 2019, depicts a black actor auditioning to play Othello for a white director who thinks he knows the part better. Cobb’s play is funny, infuriating, insightful and passionate. And it’s about defending art and speaking the truth as much as it is about deconstructing white privilege – which, in this play, often amounts to the same thing.
The show makes its Pittsburgh premiere with four performances February 17-20 at Point Park University’s Pittsburgh Playhouse.
Cobb, 62, is classically trained and in addition to numerous television roles (including stints in ‘All My Children’ and ‘The Young and the Restless’) has played his part of Shakespeare, Laertes in ‘Hamlet to Oberon in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Although he had never played Bard’s Moor, he said he had once been fired from a production of “Othello”. was also water for this piece about the role that all black male actors (especially those of a certain physical stature) are encouraged, even expected, to aspire to, even if they’re far removed from Hamlet, Lear, and Romeo Montague.
“I think ‘American Moor’ is a hopeful piece,” Cobb said in a recent interview at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, where he was continuing rehearsals that night. “But the tragedy of this one… is that the protagonist loves Shakespeare. He fell in love with Shakespeare, then a white culture told him what Shakespeare he would be allowed to do. So now, all these years later, he stands before this white director playing the only role they said he could do. And the white director always tells him how to do it.
“Othello” tells the story of a Moorish general in 1500s Venice, which is otherwise white. He is a war hero who married Desdemona, the daughter of a Venetian senator. But his downfall is orchestrated by Iago, a soldier with a professional grievance who manipulates him into a jealous and murderous rage against Desdemona.
In “American Moor,” Cobb stars, as he has since his earliest incarnations, beginning in 2015. The other two members of the creative team, actor Josh Tyson (who plays the director) and director Kim Weild, were also on board. for much of the life of the part. The production is part of Point Park’s New Artists series. Another local connection is Weild. She met Cobb in New York City theater circles, but is now also a professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama.
The play’s running metaphor involves Othello’s famous speech to the Venetian Senate, where the Moor justifies his secret marriage to Desdemona. It was Othello’s tales of battles in distant lands that attracted her: “She gave me a world of sighs for my sorrows. / She swore, in faith, ’twas strange, ’twas passing strange; / It was pitiful, it was wonderfully pitiful. In “American Moor”, Othello’s struggles echo actor Keith’s attempts to portray Othello in his own way, despite a director who thinks the Moor should be, say, more “obsequious”.
Othello is Shakespeare’s only lead role traditionally played by a person of color. Fittingly enough for a Shakespeare-themed play, Keith conveys most of his objections and ideas to the audience in monologues and asides. “You are going to teach me something about Othello? Keith asks rhetorically. “I know a lot more about being the big black guy in the room than you do.”
The 2019 off-Broadway production, at the famed Cherry Lane Theater, was well received. The Boston Globe called the show a “must-see” and the New York Review of Books described it as “a witty, passionate, furious and moving tale of intimacy about the often unrequited love of an African-American actor for Shakespeare”. A Slate writer said it offered “a promising way into the future of Shakespeare performance”. The piece even attracted the attention of the scholarly press.
But the love that playwright Cobb and actor Keith share for Shakespeare is not unconditional. Cobb loves language — the way Shakespeare’s rich lines feel on his tongue and how it allows him to give voice on stage to emotions a black man might find himself discouraged from expressing in everyday life.
Still, Cobb called the characters “Othello” archetypes, rather than fully realized humans. The plot is “full of holes,” he said, and the way the play is traditionally framed is also problematic: Cobb called it “very awkward as a culture that we buy this story from. black men who whisper nonsense in his ear and kill his wife.
The Elizabethan era predates the invention of modern concepts of race, and Cobb said contemporary artists are only able to depict racial attitudes as we understand them today. The word “Moor” in Shakespeare’s time could refer to almost anyone who was not white (including Arabs, for example).
But for his antagonists, like Iago, any difference between Othello and the “white” Britons is crucial and exploitable. (Until the late 1960s, Othello was usually played by black-faced white actors, including Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier; exceptions include the famous 19and-century, black American actor Ira Aldridge, and 20andPaul Robeson, stage and screen icon of the last century.)
Some actors continue to revere the role. In a 2009 White House poetry slam, James Earl Jones (who played Othello on stage) chose to perform the Moor’s speech in the Senate. And play a transgender cast (a character’s traditional gender presentation was not considered) Othello in a 2020 stage production Jessika D. Williams seemed in an interview to describe the play less as racist itself and more about the racism of Othello’s haters.
For his part, despite having no desire to play Othello these days, Cobb is looking to address those issues with his ongoing untitled Othello project, in which he summons theater artists to work on the script, exploring each character in depth. The idea is to create a revised version of the play that is still Shakespearean but more psychologically plausible.
The Playhouse staging of “American Moor” will be the first since the start of the pandemic – and also since national protests for racial justice, following the police killing of George Floyd in 2020. But while culture — and perhaps the theater world more than most — claims to be newly sensitized to white supremacy, Cobb said the core message of his play remains relevant. “All of these quote-unquote changes that have been ushered in by COVID and the public lynching of George Floyd, enormous as they are, are not enough to change the trajectory of a culture that operates from hundreds of years of racist structures” , he said.
“American Moor” receives four performances at the PNC Theater at the Playhouse. More information here.
The show is accompanied by “he is me and I love myself very much”, a multimedia art installation inspired by a line from “American Moor”. The exhibition, curated by Sean Beauford and Alisha Wormsley, runs February 8-20 in the Playhouse lobby.