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Shakespeare & Beyond

The irony of the American Moor


We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.
Anaïs Nin

The first public performance of American Moor took place on November 20, 2013, in a small auditorium at Westchester Community College in Valhalla, New York. It was an absolutely unenhanced presentation on a bare, harshly lit stage, with a text that was rough around the edges, unpolished throughout, and markedly different in myriad respects from the definitive version recently published by the Methuen imprint. Much had changed by the time the play opened off-Broadway at Cherry Lane Theater in New York City this past fall, some six years later. What had begun as essentially a raw monologue had matured into the nuanced and multi-layered magic of several conspiring artists.

What had not changed at all, however, was me. I was the same large, African-American male, trembling with creative power and passion, imbued from within with old energies of heritage and emotional memory; compelled from without by resistance to the weight of a society that found me always working to prove my worthiness of it.

American Moor actor and playwright Keith Hamilton Cobb
Keith Hamilton Cobb. Photo by Nina Wurtzel

In both performances, the first as well as the most recent, and in all of those in between, I stood on the stage and I spoke back. I spoke back to Shakespeare. I spoke back to the white-owned and operated American Theater and to Shakespeare in his safe, unassailable fortress within it. I spoke back to the obliviousness of the obliviousness of white Americans who perceive everything that I am and do from within a framework of ancient, intricately wrought privilege so meticulously constructed that I can barely blame them for not being able to see beyond it. I spoke back—a cardinal transgression of the American order since the time slaves first learned English. I was honest, adamant, and indicting—and I apologized for nothing.

Then, when the first performance was over, a white teenaged girl stood up and said, “That’s my story.” She then went on to describe her experience of the performance as a story of the human being, one who was not seen nor heard nor embraced for all the unique things that he was, but rather tolerated only as what someone else needed him to be. In the arc of performances since—around the country and abroad—people across every cultural, sexual, racial, age, and gender spectrum have said the same thing as that high school girl. “That’s my story.” And I, who wrote the play to reflect my particular African-American experience, have had to recognize that my story is, ultimately, just another human story. Irrespective of our disguises, we all want to be seen, to be recognized, ultimately to be loved. This truth—all truth—is not relative, but universal.

But something interesting happens to human beings in the pursuit of those things that we all want. Because we are animals, we are driven by instincts of self-preservation. Given that, an important question is what perception of “self” is it that we are trying to preserve?  Because we are very clever animals with egos, we pursue our self-preservation dressed up in designs that flatter us. Thus, you will very seldom hear brokers of white American power say, “I haven’t done more to advance the cause of racial and social equality because I was afraid to be disadvantaged by the changes it might bring about. I was afraid to lose the status that I have always enjoyed. I was afraid to cede any of my authority to people whom I have never had to know and whose experience I have never had to understand. I was afraid of what actual equality would look like and where I would exist within it. I was afraid.” These would be truths. But fear isn’t flattering… One might forego self-flattery if claiming fear is the only thing standing between one and a prison sentence for the death of the black man one just shot. But in most other instances, that most human of tendencies has a wealth of rationale to hide itself behind.

American Moor is, on its face, a play about a physically and intellectually imposing African-American actor auditioning for the role of Shakespeare’s black hero, Othello, opposite a much younger white director who presumes to know, and subsequently to dictate, how the character should be performed.  He wants to tell the black actor how to portray the black character. The scenario, in the simplest of terms, is one of subordinate and sovereign; of supplicant and supplier; of one who seeks a job and one empowered with bestowing it, if he chooses. The stuff of the play is the navigation of the journey for both when the threat looms that these long-standing paradigms are in danger of being deviated from. The white auditioner, with whatever tools of diplomacy he can muster, endeavors to insist on a performance from the black actor that adheres to his own idea of how the African-descended warrior looks and behaves. He says, straight-faced, “Let me see him ingratiate himself a little more…” The black actor counters with his long-cultivated and sorely tested tools of tolerance and forgiveness, but mostly with those of self-love and, like all humans, self-preservation. Where such a standoff gets us is something the readers of the play will need to decide for themselves.

As I have labored to bring American Moor to New York City venues, I have found myself sitting across the desks from more than a few of the brokers of American Theater. They are white. They lean toward the left. And they have said to me, also with the straightest of faces, “This is great! I see you. I understand you. Now, who is this director character supposed to be?” They have said to me, “You give us a glimpse at a new and interesting envisioning of Othello. Can we develop that more? Can the actor and the director in the play have more of a dialogue?” And I have wanted to respond, “You do realize that the play is not about a new envisioning of Othello, but about White American Theater’s absolute lack of interest, or even awareness, that I might offer one, yes?” And I have wanted to respond, “But I have never had an actual dialogue across a table from a white director in an auditioning room in my entire career…” And they have said, “You’re the playwright. You don’t have to change anything, but these are just some of my ideas.” For those of you who are not versed in the language, that means: “If you want me to produce your play you are going to change it in the ways that take the focus off of anything that you want to suggest I am doing—or being—that is wrong. I’m the good guy. I get it. And that’s why we’re having this discussion…”  Others never bothered to take the meeting…because as far as they were concerned, their American Theater “works,” and they were the very definition of what’s working. Why discuss fixing what isn’t broken?

As my labors have haltingly succeeded to get the play onto stages, such voices, uncannily mirroring that of the director character within the play, have never receded. They have lingered around every production, often emanating from the least suspected mouths—or perhaps only from those I had hoped to least suspect—and have been known to say, “That performance you’re giving seems awfully angry… Could you be nicer?” or, “You really let us in when you smile. Could you do more of that? It’s great when you do that…”  Such voices persist alongside a vast, diverse majority of theater-goers saying, “You have made me see,” or, “You have made me feel seen.” It has never been the theater-going community at large that feels threatened by the American Moor—the community starves for new voices which reflect it, and it delights to be uplifted in innovative and unexpected ways—it’s the theater maker.

With regard to “feeling seen,” isn’t it interesting how we as human beings crave it unless it is brought to our attention that what people see of us is not flattering? The young woman who stood up to speak back to the first performance of American Moor said, “That’s my story.” She and a great many others have come to the theater over the past six years and sung hallelujah to find themselves there, and to find their story being told, and to find that it was and is a common story, a communal story and experience. That has always been what theater was intended to do. Contrary to that majority, it is ironic, is it not, that many of those who make and control the American Theater, just like those who control most everything in these United States, would rather see less of themselves so honestly delineated, and only as much of me as will confirm how they see themselves?

⇒ Related: Read Kim Hall’s introduction to American Moor

Hear directly from Keith Hamilton Cobb in an interview about American Moor with performance clips that he did for the Folger’s Shakespeare Unlimited podcast in 2016.

Readers of Shakespeare & Beyond can use the discount code FOLGER35 to receive 35% off the purchase price for the print or ebook edition of American Moor on the Bloomsbury website.