Keith Hamilton Cobb’s ‘American Moor’ confronts Shakespeare, racism and truth

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Keith Hamilton Cobb’s “American Moor” is coming to FAMU Jan. 12-13, in partnership with Southern Shakespeare Festival. (Photo: Keith Hamilton Cobb/Special to the Democrat)

December 21, 2016
TALLAHASSEE DEMOCRAT
Neil Coker, Democrat Staff Writer

For actor and writer Keith Hamilton Cobb, success didn’t come easily. Before breaking into TV with roles on shows like “Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda” and “All My Children” (which earned him an Emmy nod), he struggled on the stage, a realm he’s revisiting with his one-man play “American Moor.”

In partnership with the Southern Shakespeare Company and FAMU’s Artists in Bloom Festival, next month Cobb will bring “American Moor” to Tallahassee audiences. It’s the story of a large, vocal African-American actor auditioning for the role of Othello for an unseen white director. It’s also an experience Cobb says he has lived through time and again.

“When I chose the profession, I was groomed for certain things and denied others. Bias is fairly blatant if you’re aware that it’s there,” he said. “It’s a piece about racial bias. Any kind of bias.”

Although to limit its scope to America’s racism problem is to shortchange its broader message.

“We go to these colleges and talk to these kids about this, and people across the sexual, racial, gender spectrum are moved by this piece. It’s really about being heard, needing that, that fundamental human need.”

Cobb wrote the first draft in a day and a half. Many drafts and several years later, “American Moor” has hit the road, touring colleges, regional theaters and playhouses. But he’s never had a consistent rehearsal space, a place to call home and let the piece grow.

It’s part of the reason he’s excited about his visit to Tallahassee. FAMU, he said, is the first institution to grant him a performance space for an entire week.

In writing, acting, or even talking about “American Moor,” Cobb emphasizes experiential living. Another goal of the work is “to talk across experiential barriers. Your experience is your experience, mine is mine, and therefore we have a difficult time talking across that barrier.

“As a black American man, I can’t separate that experience from a black American actor. (Theater) is ruled by all the things that dominate society at large. I’ve been living a great deal of this experience,” he said, noting the parallels between himself and the central character he embodies onstage.

Also mentioned were the parallels between Cobb’s character and Othello himself, a character traditionally conveyed as a noble and composed person who unravels over the course of the play. It’s a fitting correlation, for the play has almost always been a outside-looking-in view of a black “other,” rather than an internal reflection coming from the heart of the black actor.

This is something he says makes people go quite literally insane.

“What that causes emotionally, internally, is I think a level of psychosis. If we repress and deny our authentic selves, we go crazy. For all intents and purposes, it’s a fine lovely man having a breakdown.”

In a nutshell, the play also becomes the question of “What makes Othello Othello?”

Following each performance, a talkback session is held. These, Cobb said, tends to reach people on “a very visceral level.”

“The first production of this play I ever did, the first person to stand up was a 15-year-old Jewish girl. She said, ‘This play is about me.’ That’s how I knew I had something,” he said.

Reaching out to demographics beyond his own became a priority.

“This play is about the conversations no one has, especially about race. If we’re going to do this play, then we need to have time to talk about it.“

But the play is also about the English language and how we use it to persuade others. To up-and-coming actors and those receiving their education, Cobb has a few words of advice: “Everyone who studies theater needs to work on play writing. We’re running out of stuff.”

And to black theater students specifically, his words have a heightened sense of imperative.

“I tell them first what I tell all theater students. If this is your life choice, you feel it in you like anything else, like being gay or black. You have to honor what you are. Perhaps the universe will support you in that.

“But I don’t necessarily believe that the universe will allow you to succeed. But it’s not a done deal, and it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t realize your dreams. It’s a hell of a lot easier to do almost anything than to make it in this business.

“When I get to black students, I say you take that, but multiply it by a 100. Be ready. The opportunity will come and you must be ready.”

In the end, the core of “American Moor” is simply about speaking to truth, which is the essence of drama itself.

“So much of the truth has been sucked out of our culture, this uber-capitalist culture where everything is ruled by money and everything must be monetized,” he said. “American theater needs a violent separation from capitalism. We have to get back to the truth.”

On the rise of terminology such as “post-truth,” Cobb supposes that the phrase suits the times.

“I think the word is very descriptive, a great word to describe what’s going on,” he said. “This idea that we’ve gotten beyond any real ability to discern what is real and what is not. We do not teach our children critical thinking, we don’t teach them tools of honest self-assessment. … There needs to be a leveling or our cumulative spiritual experiences. Sometimes we need a cataclysm to wake people up. For me, this election was a cataclysm.”

And Cobb doesn’t need a big budget or ostentatious display to make his point.

“’American Moor’ is a bare stage with four chairs. You need to do that. Work that matters, speaking from your heart, from your soul,” he said.

It’s something that gets lost even in something as progressive as Broadway’s mega-hit “Hamilton.”

“’Hamilton’ is an interesting case,” he said. “I think the genius of ‘Hamilton’ is 100-percent real and needs to be praised forever. It’s extraordinary and has changed the game. It has shown the industry, ‘Wow, there is something besides ‘Oklahoma!’ or ‘The Lion King.’

“That said, the fact that nobody without $400 can get in is ridiculous. All these theater majors, people who should be getting to see this work and see how to do it themselves, they don’t get to see it. It gets co-opted by this corporate structure.”

So it’s all the more important, he believes, that as many people as possible have the opportunity to see his own play.

“By and large, I work with very poorly trained actors, very poorly trained directors who can’t assess the intent of Shakespeare. They have an audience that has not been trained to assess the material. They pay $125 for a ticket, they cry, they go home, and they just accept it. We have lost our compass. We have lost our sense of right and wrong, integrity and lack of integrity. That’s a dark place,” he said.

It’s no surprise then that he describes “American Moor” as the most important work he’s ever done.

“I hope that, if nothing else, (it) has an innate integrity that crosses all of the sexual, racial, age and gender lines.”

Tallahassee Democrat