A journey through Shakespeare and race: Keith Hamilton Cobb’s “American Moor” comes to the Valley  

  • Keith Hamilton Cobb is the author and the sole onstage actor of “American Moor,” a 90-minute play in which he performs as an actor auditioning for the lead role in Shakespeare’s “Othello.”  Photo courtesy of Keith Hamilton Cobb

  • Photo by C. Stanley Photography/courtesy of Keith Hamilton Cobb

  • Keith Hamilton Cobb is the author and the sole onstage actor of “American Moor,” a 90-minute play in which he performs as an actor auditioning for the lead role in Shakespeare’s “Othello.”  Photo courtesy of Keith Hamilton Cobb

Staff Writer
Published: 10/31/2018 4:37:04 PM

Award-winning actor and playwright Keith Hamilton Cobb stands on stage, in the role of an actor hoping to play a key character in a famous Shakespearean play. That’s the basic premise to Cobb’s 90-minute solo play, “American Moor,” which comes to Mount Holyoke College next week with three public performances at the college’s Rooke Theater.

Despite the simple setup, the play is much more complex than it initially seems. “American Moor” isn’t about William Shakespeare, despite Cobb’s portrayal as an actor auditioning for the title role in The Bard’s “Othello.”

“What is important to this play is American interpretations of Shakespeare,”  Cobb told the Gazette in a recent phone interview. “We take the work, and there is this natural tendency towards ownership. The white American male structure has owned this work. They are descendants of Brits, and there is this sense of, ‘This is ours. We say how to do it.’ And all over the globe, people are speaking back to that and saying, ‘No. This is everybody’s.’ ”

The play, directed by Kim Weild and penned by Cobb, focuses on a black American actor (played by Cobb) auditioning for the role of Shakespeare’s Othello, contrasted at various points with a younger white director who’s off-stage, but who can be heard by the audience. As part of an example of the issue of race in “American Moor,” Cobb’s character’s interpretation of Othello is different from the stereotyped interpretation of the white director. ​​​

But the play digs deeper — asking audience members to reflect on broader issues such as race in America and what it’s like to be treated as an outsider or “other.”

Last year, the Boston Globe called the production “a blisteringly eloquent and penetrating meditation on the ever-urgent matter of race in America — though ‘meditation’ seems far too tame a word for the dramatic force Cobb brings to the subject in a performance that shakes the Plaza Theatre walls and audience complacency alike.”

Cobb has a long resume in TV, including appearing in some soap operas as well as a main character in the science-fiction series “Andromeda,” a show based on Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s unused scripts. But “American Moor” is a departure from his past roles, both in television and theater. 

“The beginning was really just frustration with my interaction as a performer with the theater community and wondering how much of me anyone ever saw, wondering how much of me anyone heard or cared to hear,” Cobb said. “How much does the world care about anybody of us as individuals — what we do, what we feel, how we identify?”

More than six years ago, Cobb created the foundation of “American Moor” from an intense writing session during the course of a couple of hours; the play has been evolving ever since.

“As we take it out and play it, this extremely broad cross section of human beings speak back to it from every demographic,” he said. “Old, young, whatever race, whatever sexual orientation or persuasion — people see themselves in the work. 

“While on the surface this is about me and my experience, or if you like, this fictitious character, this African American male and his experience, it’s really about all of us,” Cobb added. “It’s about the ‘otherness’ that we all feel — never being seen or never really being heard.”

The response from audiences across the United States and in Europe has affirmed this idea that “American Moor” has a universal theme, Cobb said.

“In the post-performance discussions that we have, people get up and say the most profound things. They’re from all walks of life,” he explained. “The first person to speak back to this play in the first public performance was a Jewish teenage girl who said, ‘This is my story.’ And we thought from there on, ‘Oh, OK. This is bigger than us.’ ”

At Mount Holyoke and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Cobb will not only be performing, but actively engaging with students during a two-week residency at the colleges. He’ll be speaking with students and faculty and also hosting an actors’ studio with Weild, the “American Moor” director, and Jude Sandy, who played Othello in a production earlier this year by the Trinity Repertory Company of Providence, R.I. 

Marjorie Rubright, associate professor of English at UMass and director of the Kinney Center for Interdisciplinary Renaissance Studies at the university, said she thinks students will come away from the experience of “American Moor” and Cobb’s residency with a “powerful sense of how one voice — one story — can catalyze challenging conversations about race in America.

“I’m excited that ‘American Moor’ won’t end when the curtain falls,” she said in an email. “Instead, during … [his] residency, Keith Hamilton Cobb and ‘American Moor’ will shape our conversations across the five colleges and the wider Valley. I’m most excited for the dialogue that develops … after UMass students fill a theater on a November afternoon and listen to [his] story.” 

As part of his residency, Cobb will also have a public conversation this Friday, Nov. 2, at 4:30 p.m. at Gamble Auditorium at Mount Holyoke with internationally-recognized artist Curlee Raven Holtin, whose exhibit “Othello Re-Imagined in Sepia” is currently on display at the college’s art museum until December 16.

Rubright said she’s been collaborating with Cobb and Mount Holyoke Associate Professor of English Amy Rodgers for a year in order to make the residency a reality.

“Our goal is to showcase the interdisciplinary potential of ‘American Moor’ by developing a broad array of programming at UMass Amherst,” Rubright noted. “We seek to integrate public conversation about the performing arts with scholarly discussions about Shakespeare, race, and America.”  

Cobb said he believes “American Moor” answers questions about race in America that people are afraid to engage in.

“They’re afraid that with the first thing out of their mouth, they’ll be indicted,” he said. “So, they don’t ask the questions. So ‘American Moor’ goes ahead and answers the questions that they’re not asking, so they can just sit there and be part of the journey.”

Chris Goudreau can be reached at cgoudreau@gazettenet.com.

For more information about “American Moor” and Keith Hamilton Cobb, visit http://keithhamiltoncobb.com/site/american-moor. He will perform the play Nov. 8-10 at 7:30 p.m. at Mount Holyoke College’s Rooke Theater. To purchase tickets, visit https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/theatre.

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