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Shakespeare & Beyond

Excerpt ⁠— Keith Hamilton Cobb’s ‘American Moor’: An introduction by Kim Hall

Cover of American Moor with black actor and playwright Keith Hamilton CobbCover of American Moor with black actor and playwright Keith Hamilton CobbAt the heart of Keith Hamilton Cobb’s one-man play American Moor are explorations of blackness, racial dynamics in American theater, “ownership” of Shakespeare, and the subtext of Othello. He has performed the play across the United States, including an off-Broadway run in 2019, and now the script has been published by Methuen Drama:

Keith Hamilton Cobb embarks on a poetic exploration that examines the experience and perspective of black men in America through the metaphor of Shakespeare’s character Othello, offering up a host of insights that are by turns introspective and indicting, difficult and deeply moving. American Moor is a play about race in America, but it is also a play about who gets to make art, who gets to play Shakespeare, about whose lives and perspectives matter, about actors and acting, and about the nature of unadulterated love.

A copy of American Moor has been added to the Folger collection.

The excerpt shared below is from the introduction written by Kim F. Hall, Lucyle Hook Professor of English and Professor of Africana Studies at Barnard College, reprinted with permission from Methuen Drama.

“Othello is one of Shakespeare’s most agonizing audience experiences. There is something unbearable about watching a play with knowledge that could stop the tragedy unfolding in front of you. It is a tension akin to the desperate urgency of the racially conscious subject in a willfully colorblind world. Such urgency propels Keith Hamilton Cobb’s American Moor, which follows a veteran black actor auditioning to play Shakespeare’s Othello for an unseasoned, white director. It is the story of how his blackness and his love of Shakespeare collide with the largely white Shakespeare industry—the teachers, acting coaches, agents, directors (and scholars?)—who subtly maintain ownership over Shakespeare while at the same time insisting that Shakespeare is a universal public good. It is the most discerning and direct confrontation with the racial dynamics of the American stage I have seen in years. It is, nonetheless, hopeful that we can loosen the grip of historical forces that haunt the Anglo-American stage.

Black love of Shakespeare is a site of profound struggle and Othello its most vexed object. The rise of Shakespeare as a national poet in the eighteenth century—his “gentrification,” if you will—coincided with the denigration of black life in the Americas. Historically, black attempts to stage Shakespeare have been met with the enduring and immensely profitable laughter of the minstrel stage (a global phenomenon with roots in American slavery), when not sabotaged by legal exclusion, racist hostility, and literal violence such as the riots and burning of New York City’s African Grove Theater in 1822. Our current era of remembrance and praise of the astonishing careers of renowned actors Ira Aldridge and Paul Robeson can obscure the fact that their Shakespeare performances were weapons in the fight for freedom. For Aldridge, the cause was Abolition, for Robeson, Civil Rights. While now the causes are more multifaceted, the objective of human freedom is no less urgent.

Black performers have a unique relationship to Shakespeare in part because Shakespeare wrote three speaking roles for black men: Aaron, the Prince of Morocco, and Othello. However, Othello more than any other play, seemingly offers a place of entry: who better than black people to understand the constant sense of judgment, the suspicion that accompanies being an outsider? Who better to feel the story of a black man with a singular relationship to the state, whose gifts of eloquence and military prowess let him temporarily cross the boundaries of an insular world? Othello’s call to have his unmediated story told, “Speak of me as I am,” can resonate powerfully for black diasporic peoples who are far too often the subject of others’ speech. American Moor answers this call by transporting Othello to the twenty- first century in order to explore the outsider status of the black man in Western theater and in Western culture at large.

In traditional productions of Othello, the overall vision for the staging is mostly in the hands of white creators and performed for predominantly white audiences. Thus, even apart from the play’s emotional extremes, playing Othello makes extraordinary psychic demands upon black actors. It is the only one amongst Shakespeare’s eponymous tragedies in which the villain has almost as many lines as the tragic hero. Often, then, Othello becomes Iago’s play and in many current productions, it’s hard to tell whether audiences eventually feel complicit in Iago’s laughter or are untouched, sharing his position of white omniscience. We are told that much of the controversy over Othello springs from the interracial romance with its striking visual of a black man embracing and ultimately killing a white woman on stage. That performance barrier removed—and with American Moor’s help—we can see the deeper structures of power and the “tyrant custom” that bars full black participation even with a role that “has been more or less wholly the province of large Black men.”

Cobb trusts us enough to show in intimate detail the process of inhabiting a character that both was and was not created for you. American Moor deftly weaves the complications of the history Shakespeare’s Othello helped create with the power dynamics of theater. We are all auditioning, this play reminds us, often for roles that fulfill other’s needs and other’s expectations. Increasingly, we are selling and branding ourselves in hopes of being seen and heard, hired, and loved. The play opens up the audition space where actors brings into action their instrument and their finely honed skills. This space of need and potential is, however, fraught with unspoken expectations, especially around race and difference. The actor must be compelling and beguiling, be thick-skinned and able to take direction and criticism. But a director controls the reality in the room: what happens when your years of experience and skill are unexpectedly and unintentionally turned to your negation? How do you handle situations when the power of your role (or indeed your very being), is turned to “obeisance” and inimical to black interests? After so many encounters, how do you keep your love of theater from turning to dust?

On this note, American Moor is as exuberantly hopeful as it is deeply critical. It is a play with uncommon faith in us. As the audience, we are simultaneously the Director, the Venetian Senate, and ourselves: we can stop the racism in theater and in our lives, if we can make the space and time for learning and listening. We don’t have to passively play roles as others imagine them. What’s past need not be prologue. With effort, we can undo and redo the Shakespeare scripts, the scripts about Shakespeare that we have inherited, and the scripts of Anglo-American life. Cobb gives us glimpses of, not just a different Othello, but of a new relationship to Shakespeare.”

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.

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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.