Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 54
MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director.
Within the Shakespeare canon, there are a handful of plays that we might consider the superstars. The ones that theaters and audiences love again and again, season after season. Among this group of plays, none is more fraught in 21st century America than Othello, the story of a tragic murder and suicide involving a dark-skinned general and his aristocratic, white-skinned bride. Who should direct it? Who’s "allowed" to? What if a white director and an actor cast as Othello simply do not see eye to eye on the play’s subtext, the Moor’s motivations, and what the audience is supposed to take away from the production?
That conflict is at the heart of a one-man show currently being performed around the country called American Moor. In it, a black actor, the play’s author, Keith Hamilton Cobb, stands on stage and addresses an invisible white director, who simply does not get Othello. Their disagreement allows for a searing exploration of the gulf between black and white Americans that some like to believe simply does not exist.
Keith Hamilton Cobb came in to talk about all this after a recent performance in the Washington, DC, area. This podcast is titled “Is this the Noble Moor?” Keith is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: First, just to get us started, why don’t you give everyone an idea of what the show is like, so that they can picture it as we talk about it and later play some clips. So what’s the premise and the mechanics of this solo show?
KEITH HAMILTON COBB: This show is a 90-minute play that takes place in an audition for the role of Othello, where a middle-aged, 50-plus black man is standing in a room, auditioning for an auditioner who you never see, you hear the voice of. He’s out there in the house, somewhere. And the auditioner is about two-thirds his age and white.
BOGAEV: Right, you can hear that in his voice. He’s a young guy.
COBB: Yeah, he’s a young guy. And he’s asking this large, intelligent, clearly capable man of color to behave and show him the black man that he thinks Othello is.
BOGAEV: Right, and it starts with the director saying, “Okay, you ready? And do you have any questions about the role of Othello?” And let’s play a clip here. You say...
[CLIP of Keith Hamilton Cobb in American Moor]
COBB: A little white man is asking me if I have any questions about being a large black man in acting the role of a large black man in a famous Shakespeare play about a large black man, that for 60 or 70 years has been wholly the province of large black men. No. I don’t have any questions.
BOGAEV: It’s so good. I like that one guy gets it right at the beginning.
COBB: Right at the beginning.
BOGAEV: You can hear him starting to laugh.
COBB: And what’s so interesting about that is wherever we go, because I am the play, the play has to be about black American men first. And there’s connective tissue there with any other black man, and almost any other walk of life, so long as he is in America.
Because it is really about the black American experience. Not necessarily the black actor’s experience. There’s no separating one from the other, but people stand up and post-performance discussions and say, “That’s my life and I’m a stockbroker. That’s my life and I’m a high school teacher.”
BOGAEV: Right, but when I walk in a room, I’m the black guy.
COBB: I’m the black guy.
BOGAEV: Well, I have to ask you then, how much of this play is based on your own experience auditioning, and having to stifle your reactions? Because that’s what the play is. We hear what’s really going on inside of your head while you are somewhat good-naturedly and civilly responding to this director.
COBB: That’s right. Ultimately, all of it, in some form or fashion...
BOGAEV: Right, so you’ve walked in and you’ve had a director say, “Oh, so you’re doing the Big O, Othello.”
COBB: Absolutely. But more importantly, that is, and this is I think the bigger point of the play, is that that is the reality in life, but not just in this theatrical situation. The voice of that director, he is invisible for a reason. It is the omniscient voice that we hear in the world. I walk out of my house and there is a voice that says, "You watch how you behave." And young black men hear this from the time they are babies. "You take that bass out of your voice. You don't respond. They’re not going to get you. You’re going to get yourself shot. They do not get you."
BOGAEV: That’s pretty much the whole message of Between the World and Me, the Ta-Nehisi Coates book.
COBB: Yeah, that is absolutely the message. And that voice is everywhere, saying, no matter what level of success you achieve, that voice is saying, “We will accept this, this, this, this, and this from you, but not this, this, and this.”
You know, I often use the example of the difference between Othello and Romeo. If you’re auditioning a Romeo, you’re going to find a kid. He’s probably 16, 17, 18, 19. He’s going to be just out of school, and if he can say the words right and he’s cute, you’re going to hire him. You’re not going to ask him questions. But if you’re hiring an Othello, you’re hiring a man who is 50-plus years old.
COBB: He’s been in this business 30 years, 35 years, as an actor, and if he’s 55, he’s been in this business 55 years as a black man.
BOGAEV: Right, even longer.
COBB: He knows a little bit about that. Don’t you owe him a discussion? Who is he?
BOGAEV: I want to play another clip here that gets to this, because you lay out a lot of classic racial stereotyping throughout the play, beginning with this first interaction that your character has with the director. And you have an idea from all of this experience that you’re talking about, clearly you have an idea how to portray Othello’s speech to the senators about his life and how Desdemona came to love him. And the director has a different one, apparently. So first, tell us what you see as Othello’s motivation.
COBB: To answer that question, I have to really talk about Desdemona first. And I think that she is Shakespeare’s embodiment of the quintessential, unconditional love. Desdemona is this character who is inconceivably brave, some would say insanely brave, to do what she does. And she looks at this man who she’s seen, who she’s discovered, and devotes herself to him in a way that ultimately gets her killed, because it blocks her ability to see anything but his goodness.
BOGAEV: Right, that is the tragic... It's her fatal, her Achilles heel of tragedy.
COBB: That’s right. And I think someone like Othello discovers her discovering him, and no one has looked at him in that way.
BOGAEV: It’s a huge revelation.
COBB: And I think Othello is floored by this. Everybody else sees him for what his value is, what sort of a threat he is, what he presents, as this non-white stranger, you know. America can look at Michael Jordan, and still see the black man, but say, “Man, he’s good for basketball, though.” Right? "He’s good for that."
BOGAEV: And you talk about this in the play, that you bring all of this interpretation to the play, and also this sense that Othello has a great sense of self-possession. And let’s play the clip now.
[CLIP of Keith Hamilton Cobb in American Moor]
COBB: That combination of humility and yet the knowledge of one’s own work is called self-possession. If anything, it brings composure, stillness, and it has forever been disorienting to white men when they see black ones wear it.
BOGAEV: And that’s what you also bring to this interpretation of Othello, this tremendous self-possession, and the director in the play is disoriented by this, this self-possession, this calm reading. And he wants something else entirely. And he seems to be going for, “Give me the minstrel show. Give me Othello trying to endear himself, to dance the dance.”
COBB: Yes, and in his defense, it’s not completely his fault. Shakespeare...
BOGAEV: It’s probably a classic interpretation of that.
COBB: Because Shakespeare has written it as a melodrama, where people turn on a dime. There is no nuance in the shifting of their emotional state or their perception. That’s fine, it worked when he wrote the play. He was writing for an audience he knew would accept and appreciate him for it, but it is a museum piece that is not useful to our contemporary culture. Unless you want to show somebody, this is what it was.
BOGAEV: And this gets back to what you were just saying, that there is such a lack of communication, and it’s really what you’re talking about throughout the play, in this scene, or all of these, that there’s no real discussion. There’s such a lack of respect or acknowledgment that race is a factor in this whole production. Race is a factor every time a white, black, different races get together in the room.
COBB: It is the elephant in every room. And I think that’s the difficult thing for white America to grasp. But it's so old, and has been there for so long, that it has become invisible to those that are comfortable with it. And those that are comfortable are on the white side of the equation.
Because if we go back 400 years to when all this started, it was all systematically set up with intention to separate races, to separate understanding of what is of value and what is not, who is of value and who is not. And because it’s so old and so entrenched, it’s still very, very hard to have the discussion. To come together and even look at it with the same set of eyes. We’re looking at it from two very different places, always.
BOGAEV: Yeah, and you take aim at that at various times throughout the show. And we’re talking about white privilege, and the many ways, the insidious ways that it shows itself.
And you reference this when you say, “Isn’t that what we say when we give lip service to this creative process? But you see, in matters of race throughout my American life, whenever some white person, well-meaning or otherwise, has asked me to be 'open,' in quotation marks, they’ve invariably meant see it my way.”
Now, in theater, we’ve all run up against the director who wants everyone to see it their way, the fatuous ego. So how do you separate those two, and tell me more about what you mean by “whenever people talk about wanting to be 'open,' they mean see it my way.”
COBB: Well, you know, in the profession, in the rehearsal process, or even the audition process, there is a level to which I need to pony up and be professional. And say, well, he is the director.
BOGAEV: Right, it’s a job interview.
COBB: Right? He is the director and I’m here to give him what he needs. It could be any play. I mean, some of the things have happened in auditions for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner or August Wilson plays. You know, whenever you’re hiring the black man to be the American black man, and you’re not one, you need to shut up and listen.
And this idea of "just see it my way" extends into the world at large. You know, people have said to me, when the Michael Brown case was so much in the news—"Man, put yourself in the cop’s position."
BOGAEV: "See it his way."
COBB: "Yeah, put yourself..." The kid’s dead! Put yourself in the kid’s position—and everybody like him.
BOGAEV: How do audiences react to this play? I’m curious. You’ve done a lot of post-show discussions, I’m sure.
COBB: They have very powerful, visceral reactions and are often very moved to express in post-performance discussions, which is exciting to me.
BOGAEV: Like what?
COBB: Well, first off, there are points of identification that I never thought there would be. The first person to ever stand up, the first public performance of this play we did three years ago, it was very raw, and the first person to stand up and speak back was a 17-year-old little Jewish high-school girl, and said, “That’s my story. That’s my...”
BOGAEV: You didn’t see that coming.
COBB: That’s right, I said we got something here. You know?
BOGAEV: What did she mean?
COBB: The character on stage is dealing with the fact that he is an “other,” like Othello is an “other.” You have a value to us in being the thing that we’d like you to be, and because we are in the power position, why don’t you just be that for us?
And any marginalized people will respond to that. I have women stand up and say, “That’s us!” as a body, you know.
BOGAEV: Oh, sure. But do you get pushback?
COBB: Yeah. Yeah, I get some. Much less.
BOGAEV: And what form does it take?
COBB: Early on, one of our first reviews, A young white man, he came to the play.
And the play starts with this actor waiting in a waiting space to be called to go into this audition. And then the rest of the play, once he goes in, the rest of the play happens in this audition room.
And he’s standing there, he’s moving around, he’s stretching, he’s in the room by himself. And he’s doing stretches and looking at the text, and he’s moving around and he really just wants to go in there and do it. And then he’s called, and the play starts. And he goes off, and we have the rest of the play.
COBB: Well, the review came out, and this young man, he wrote, "The actor entered." I was already on stage, but he said, "The actor entered." And there was Keith Hamilton Cobb, waiting to audition for the role of a lifetime. And he is so busy and restless and frenetic that he’s disturbing everyone in the room.
And me and my producers, we looked at this, and I said, there was nobody in the room. But what’s so fascinating about that... his review, by the way, went on from there to paint this picture of this angry, frenetic, re: dangerous man of color, who was being very disrespectful in his audition with this person who was just trying to give him a job.
COBB: And in sitting and talking to the producers about that, I said here’s the analogy.
A young black man is sitting at a bus stop. And he wants to go home. He wants to go, he’s got something on his mind, he’s standing up, he’s sitting down, he’s looking at his watch, the cop is looking at him from across the street. Why is he moving around so much? What is he doing?
So he goes over and approaches this guy, and the guy is like, “Why are you approaching me?” “Well, why are you worried about why I’m approaching you?” “Well, because I wasn’t doing anything.” “What, are you guilty? Why are you saying you’re not doing anything?” It goes on from there, the cop shoots him dead.
What happens in court? What happens? “Well, why did you approach him?” “He looked suspicious.” “Well, what was he doing?” “He was moving around, he was standing up.”
BOGAEV: The review fell into every racial stereotype.
COBB: He hit every one.
BOGAEV: He hit every one.
COBB: He hit every one, and he had no idea.
BOGAEV: He hit every mark. And while we’re talking about all of the racial pigeonholing that you lay out throughout the play, right in the beginning, you describe an acting class, this experience that your character has had in the past, in which the instructor asks you what characters from Shakespeare that you want to perform.
And you say Titania, and he corrects your pronunciation, as if there’s only one right way to pronounce that name. And then he says, "No, you can’t do that." And then you suggest Romeo and he says, "No, you can’t do that, either." And you know, pick something more "appropriate."
And it sounds as if, more than your experience, it sounds as if this guy is dancing around, saying everything but, "Pick somebody black, for God’s sakes." So tell me about that scene. Where did that come from? And what’s it emblematic of for you?
COBB: Well, it was a dramatization of...
BOGAEV: That had to have happened.
COBB: It did happen. It didn’t happen exactly like that. It has happened any number of times.
BOGAEV: A narrowing down of your identity.
COBB: Of who you are.
BOGAEV: Of who you’re allowed to be.
COBB: And who you’re allowed to be. Absolutely.
BOGAEV: So did this happen for you as a kid, in drama class, or as a young actor?
COBB: Oh yeah, yeah, as a young actor. And what is so poignant and heartbreaking about this story for me is that, I paint the picture of this actor who fell in love with Shakespeare, because Shakespeare’s characters were allowed to be vocal, open their mouths and say whatever was the emotional fraught of their being, came out of their mouth in this most eloquent poetry.
BOGAEV: Is that how you came to Shakespeare?
COBB: That’s how I came to Shakespeare, because I was not allowed to do that as a young black man. I couldn’t open my mouth and say whatever’s on my mind, because the sound of it.
You know, I was in the studio with a producer friend of mine here in LA a couple days ago, who is another black man. And we had to stop and laugh. We were talking about something that was sort of exciting us both, and we were throwing this energy back: "Here’s what we’re going to do, and I tell you, this is some [BEEP] right here, and you know?"
And we had to stop and laugh, because you know, a fly on the wall, you know, if this was a white guy over here, he wouldn’t get this. You know? He couldn’t hear, he couldn’t take this in. The experience always is, as I said, mamas teach their sons, "You don’t do that unless you’re home."
COBB: And so I stumble upon, I’m an English major in a community college studying classical text, Shakespeare specifically, having a very difficult time lifting this stuff off the page and making sense of it. And...
BOGAEV: Right, it's meant to be seen.
COBB: It’s meant to be seen. And so I begin to see it. And I say, "Oh, so if I can just go back and make sense of some of this language, I can open my mouth and all this energy that’s sitting up in there can come out."
BOGAEV: I am curious, did you ever get to play any of those parts, like Romeo and Hamlet?
COBB: No, no. I mean, I’ve had my share of roles, but the ones that I really wanted have gone by. I can’t look back on any of this and say definitively, these are the reasons. I’m not the angry black man, who’s going to say "It’s because I was black. You know? They hate me because I’m black." That’s not what I’m saying. But I will defend that that must be in the mix.
BOGAEV: Yes. And I would like to play one more clip, because there’s a moment in the play when you get to that and where you show just how much Othello means to you, and how tragic it is that you feel that he hasn’t gotten his due.
[CLIP of Keith Hamilton Cobb in American Moor]
COBB: I began rather to feel like I have a brother, who can’t defend himself, and you’ve been slapping him around for 400 years, been coming in my face, and trying to justify your behavior.
BOGAEV: I think that’s really moving. I mean, you’re talking about redemption, just in the broadest sense here, both, I get it, with Shakespeare and that as a young man, you’d internalized, I imagined it like, an establishment-diminished interpretation of Othello as an "emotionally unstable, misogynistic murderer." That’s another line from the play. But that your own insight gives him so much more humanity.
COBB: Yeah, yeah, and I take that a step further. Remember that again, this falls on the heels of generations of demonizing of black men. And the young black baby will naturally develop a sense of self-loathing. And I’m sorry if I get a little bit emotional talking about it here, but in that moment in the play, he’s also talking about coming to a sudden epiphany, a realization about how wonderful he is.
COBB: This voice says to him, "Baby, you’re perfect. Just do it. And if you get shot dead in the process, all right. You know? But you’re not going to like yourself any more if you just do what they want you to do."
BOGAEV: Where did that moment... When did it happen? How did it happen?
COBB: It’s happened in many ways, in many places, over time, and I make of it a single moment in the play. You know, I came to Hollywood in 2009 to be... I’m sorry, ’96, and I left in 2009, so I was here for 12 years.
Wanting, and thinking I should, do what my quote-unquote superiors told me—my agents, my managers, my people. You know, "This is the thing that you do. These are the things that you do. These are the people you talk to. This is how you talk to them." And so much of it was stuff that I disliked and didn’t want to do.
"I don’t want to read for that." "Yeah, but if you do that, you can do this, this, and this."
And it took me three quarters of that 12 years to figure out, you don’t like yourself every time you leave one of these things, having done what you didn’t want to do, and they don’t want you anyway. So stop it. Be you, and you will do the things that you’re here to do.
BOGAEV: You have such wonderful language in the play, and we’ve only played some very short clips. Before I let you go, I’d love to hear that moment that you’re talking about, as you write about it in the play. And you hit that note a few times, but one of these passages, I think, hits it, and I have it right here.
[CLIP of Keith Hamilton Cobb in American Moor]
COBB: Sure. But I, the Moor says, I fetch my life and being from men of royal siege. And he says that because the truth is that this prince, at his core, is a boy. He is an arrogant, ill-mannered, perfect, precocious, black child in the body of an aging badass. He is a boy, like Tamir Rice was a boy. Like Trayvon Martin was a boy, who would challenge you for the right to his truth and his dreams.
Because that’s what boys do. Just as I strain at the bonds of decorum to challenge you now. And if by some slim odds, this boy can survive the forces, perpetually bent upon denying him the unapologizing self-actualization of his beautiful black being, he will champion that being right on into the veil of years. I can show you Othello through the instrument of this contemporary black man. And that has great value.
BOGAEV: What would your ideal play be, then? We’re talking about redemption of this character, redemption of Shakespeare, really—Shakespeare, the white guy, writing in his age, about these characters, and the limitations that inevitably come with that.
COBB: The ideal Shakespeare play wouldn’t be that one, for all the reasons we’ve discussed. I think it is an extremely flawed play.
BOGAEV: So you wouldn’t choose Othello, if you were mounting your ideal production.
COBB: I would like to direct it myself at some point, but it wouldn’t be, if it were about the ideal production, it wouldn’t be that. There are far better of his plays to choose from.
But I think more important than the particular play, my vision and my dream is about having the wherewithal, and, of course, wherewithal is the operative term, to do a production of color that nobody can deny is as relevant and as adequate as anything anybody else can offer up, in terms of a production of Shakespeare. To go around the country to schools and say, “Send me your designers, your voice and speech people, but make sure they are brown people.” Finding the best actors and rehearsing for six months... all right, four months.
BOGAEV: Take a year. Why not? We’re blue skying.
COBB: And putting something up for America that says, "There wasn’t a single non-person of color anywhere in the creative process of this thing, except for that playwright." And saying, "We’re here. We’re here, we do this just as well as anybody else, and you can’t deny it anymore."
BOGAEV: Well, here’s to that. And thank you. Here’s to you. And thank you so much for joining me here in LA for this conversation.
COBB: Thank you. This has been lovely. Thank you so much.
WITMORE: Keith Hamilton Cobb is the writer and performer of American Moor. You can find a performance schedule for the production at Keith’s website, keithhamiltoncobb.com. He was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
“Is This The Noble Moor?” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Bill Lancz at the Marketplace Studios in Los Angeles. We’d also like to extend a special thank you to the Folger’s School Programs Manager Danielle Drakes for her help in the production of this podcast.
Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.