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Beyond the Bard, Complexities and Questions :: Keith Hamilton Cobb on His Play 'American Moor'

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Jul 14, 2017

If Keith Hamilton Cobb seems familiar, it might be the case that you've seen him on one or more television series. In the 90s, Cobb had a recurring role on "All My Children;" he returned to daytime television for another part in the early 2000s, on "The Young and the Restless." In between he starred on the science fiction series "Andromeda," and he also had a recurring role on Logo's groundbreaking gay drama "Noah's Arc."

Cobb has also had a career on the stage, with roles in David Mamet's "Race," August Wilson's "Jitney," and a number of works by an up-and-comer named William Shakespeare. It is, in fact, a work by the Bard that informs - and, in a way, helped spark - Cobb's authorship of "American Moor," a not-quite-one-man show in which an actor (Cobb) auditions for the role of the iconic Shakespearean creation but has to question the assumptions that surround the character, permeate the culture, and have installed themselves in both our preconceptions of dramatic personages and the real people we encounter in everyday life.

In Shakespeare's play, Othello is a Moorish, or North African, general serving the army of Venice; he's manipulated by an ambitious subordinate, Iago, to the point of personal destruction. In American productions, Othello is usually played by African American actors. But while race seems to play a secondary part - if any at all - in the classic Shakespeare work, and Othello has distinguished himself militarily, becoming a leader of men, once the curtain falls audience and theatrical troupe alike return to the here and now, where issues of race present much deeper and broader complexities.

It's to those complexities that Cobb's play speaks. Thanks to Boston theater troupe Office of War Information - which has ties to the company that first produced "American Moor" in New York - Cobb is now bringing his vision and his voice to the Boston Center for the Arts for an engagement that commences July 19 and continues through August 12.

"American Moor is not Mr. Cobb's first play, but it is the one that is most timely, most truthful, and the one for which he is most suited to perform, for it is a vision of race in America with the entertainment industry as microcosm," publicity material for Cobb and his play reads. "And he is now able to reflect upon a lifetime in that industry where no one who was anything like him ever wrote the rules."

In this country, with its long and fractious history, and at this time, with resurgent racist (and otherwise retrograde) attitudes coming to the fore, both the fragility of democracy and the tenuous nature of equality - as much as equality has been gained, anyway - stand out in stark relief. Facing the fears and possibilities of our era is, as ever, the province of art - the theatrical arts perhaps more so than others, with its in-the-moment quality and its ability to imbue even well-worn texts with fresh meaning. ("Julius Caesar" reincarnated as Donald Trump, anyone?)

We may have taken a long leap into a deep rabbit hole, but we've brought our artistic traditions with us. Critical, insightful, healing, and hopeful, theater is no mere luxury for the bored or pastime for those seeking some quaint notion of experiential authenticity. Theater is a living, burning force for dialogue and conscience.

With "American Moor," Cobb is ready to have that discussion, both as a matter of artistic presentation and post-show interactions with the audience - as he made sure to point out in his chat with EDGE.

EDGE: You're talking about things in your one-man show that half of America doesn't want to hear - and the other half might want to discuss, but often doesn't have a clue where to begin. What's your starting point? Where do you go, conceptually, to find a place where your audience lives and where you can make that initial engagement with them?

Keith Hamilton Cobb: Neither the play nor I can really answer that question, and I think a lot of the drama in the play really stems from that - that we are stuck culturally in this place where they either don't want to, or they can't [talk about these issues]. And I think it's more that they can't, for any number of reasons that we can discuss, and some are explored in the play. But I would be speaking out of my depth to offer solutions, and the play doesn't really offer any, either. It adds more questions about whether or not we're going to persevere in trying, which is almost as important as finding a solution. [Laughing] Almost.

EDGE: What was the spark or the seed for you that resulted in this show?

Keith Hamilton Cobb: That's a difficult question to answer, because the show is about so many things, ultimately. I wanted to be an actor all my life - that's all I really know I wanted to do. It took me until after high school to know that for real, but from then on that's all that I pursued, and that pursuit and the development of my understanding of who I was in this industry, in this American acting avenue, the way we do it here, ran parallel to my development as an African American male in American culture, and my ever-growing awareness of what that meant, how that looked, how it was going to be - things I could change, things I couldn't; things I needed to perpetually to push against, things l could look past. As I get into my later years, looking back I realize there was never any separation between my life as an African American male and an African American male actor in the industry. They were one thing.

We in the theater like to pride ourselves on being very left and progressive and liberal - and it's generally not true. I mean, it's true on its face, but you go into these rooms and everybody thinks they're going to leave their prejudices at the door, and we're all going to get together and create theater that moves the culture forward. It's a sort of self-aggrandizing lie that we tell ourselves, because the racisms, the biases, are so deeply rooted in our culture and they're in us in ways that are inadvertent. In casting we see it; in things we write about, in things we say about each other in the pays that we write; in making choices about whose theater is important, whose perspectives matter - it's all there. It's the same biases that exist outside the theater doors.

EDGE: "Othello" seems a perfect backdrop against which to contemplate those social and artistic questions.

Keith Hamilton Cobb: I can't claim to be brilliant here. It was sort of inadvertent. I had been reading for Othello, and Othello had been presented to me as something that I should aspire to and think about from a very early age - way before I was old enough to play the role. After a while, you start to say, "Why is it always this, and nobody says 'You should play Hamlet?' How come nobody says, 'You should play Romeo?' " Beginning to think about that, just in terms of American perspective and bias, in parallel with having to think about what the play is really about - having to stop and really consider the piece - and then having to synthesize that with my growing awareness as a black American male - the parallels became very clear.

In the play, without giving too much away, this actor, after 35 or 40 years of acting, has become the perfect person to play Othello. If you drop all the blinders and the bullshit and just look at him as a man on stage, his physical size, his depth, his charm, his sexuality, his attractiveness, he's the perfect person to play it. He's thought about it for 30 years. He brings all of that to the audition, and yet he has to answer to someone who could never know as much about the character or black men as he does - ever.

EDGE: That touches on something I'm curious about. This seems like a one-man show even though there is a second character, the "disembodied voice" of the artistic director the actor has to contend with. How do you categorize "American Moor?" Is it a one-man show, or a lean two-hander?

Keith Hamilton Cobb: I call it a one-man show. We had done the disembodied voice of the director, who really is representative of that voice in the world. I don't know about where you sit in the American cultural realm, but to me, as a black male, I go out there and there's a voice saying every day, "Remember how you answer this person. Remember how you behave here. Remember about your voice. Remember about your size and what they see when they look at you." And that's that voice. None of us should have that voice, but I think everybody on some level does - gay, straight, black, white, old, young, they all have those reminders based on how the culture has developed, and how they have come to believe the culture looks at them.

Originally when we started doing it, [the disembodied voice] was recorded, and so clearly I could say it was a one-hander. But really, this is two people. The director comes out at the end and gets a curtain call, and you see who this person was. The character really is supposed to be a voice, and not a guy.

EDGE: There must be a heightened level of intimacy when it's just you there on stage and visible to the audience, interacting with the audience.

Keith Hamilton Cobb: That's right, and [the Plaza] is a great space to do that. It's extremely intimate, and there's an ability to ask the audience, "Come do this with me, come take this journey," and speak right upon them, sit right next to them. In the experience over the five years of development that has proven very effective - they appreciate being really let in. The catalysts for empathy are much greater.

EDGE: Along with the intimacy of appealing alone, or nearly alone, as the actor, there's also for you, as the writer, the intimacy of revealing your inmost thoughts and feelings, and your fears and questions, around these very sensitive subjects. What were those five yeas of developing the show life? Was it a struggle? Was it frightening?

Keith Hamilton Cobb: It has been by turns a struggle, by turns frightening, by turns quite gratifying. It all came out at once, sort of a paroxysm of frustration at the situations I was in five years ago, auditions for some shows and thinking, "Gee, I've done this so many times I could do it with my eyes closed." I have three minutes to give some director what he wants from me, and I have no idea what that is. He, depending on his own tools, may have no way of telling me. He's making decisions based on two or three minutes of looking at this man. I was very frustrated with that process because at this point I've lived some life. I have a perspective to bring to anything. And if we cannot respect one another's perspectives and talk about why they exist and what they are - especially in this industry - then we're kind of lost.

That was the critical mass, and I sort of vomited this thing out over a day and a half, two days. There is was. Colleagues said, "You have some really important idea there, so develop it." And, of course, the adage is "Writing is rewriting," so the process became draft after draft after draft after draft. Putting it in front of audiences, seeing their responses; bouncing things off of them, seeing how they responded to various things; homing in on what, dramaturgically, makes the most effective dramatic arc. How to tell this story effectively in the shortest space of time. We ended up with this piece, but there is no doubt that there are many moments where it just extremely raw. There would be no point in doing this play without getting [emotionally] naked for these people and saying, "This is how I feel; I am here to tell you that this is what this culture makes me feel. You need to leave and think about that."

What happens is that many people see it in [the context of] their own lives. They see the parallels in their lives. They're saying, "As a 70-plus woman, I feel similarly, I feel othered; I understand that journey." Or, "As a gay man I feel others in these ways..." It's happened invariably in the post-performance discussions that we have. Let me just plug that, by the way: We're doing post-performance discussions after every Thursday evening and Sunday matinee of this show. They are always very lively and this show strikes people on a very visceral level and they need to speak back to it.

EDGE: And those discussions are with you?

Keith Hamilton Cobb: That's with me, yes.

EDGE: As you were just saying, in the industry at large it's tough to be an African American artist. Is that starting to change? In theater we have voices like Branden Jacobs-Jenkins ("An Octoroon," "Appropriate") and, in cinema, filmmakers like Jordan Peele ("Get Out"), Nate Parker ("The Birth of a Nation"), and Barry Jenkins ("Moonlight"). But is this really an indication of deep or enduring change? Is it just that we're paying more attention for the moment, and that might not last?

Keith Hamilton Cobb: These are very sensitive questions that you're asking me, and I have to answer them very sensitively... they're important questions. And I get asked that a lot: "Don't you see that it's changing?" Like they used to say, "Don't you see that it's changing? Barack Obama's president." And of course, when we look now, we're like, "I don't see anything's changed much at all. I think it's gotten worse because he was president." You follow?

So, we have a Nate Parker, who puts out this really important self-made film about a man who incites a slave revolt and kills a bunch of white people because of the horror of American slavery. And somehow that film gets conflated with something that he did 15, 20 years ago... that he was never convicted of. Right? So what's going on there? And the film goes away. No Oscar nods; it's gone. Why is that? Is it about what he did 15 years ago, or is it because of the nature of his piece?

Jordan Peele creates this black "horror" film; a lot of people come out because black audiences love horror. That's something that the moneymaking industry is starting to see and realize, that there's an audience for black horror. They love it. And I think, "Let me go support this brother and see what he's doing." I'm glad it's out there; I think it's as good as anything anyone else has done. I think as a story about black men it's quite flawed in many ways, and should be further discussed. But it's not about discussion, it's about making lots of money. It's an industry thing. It's out there, and he'll get to do some other things - all that is ultimately good, but it's about nuance, it's about looking at things though an honest lens and saying, "Yeah, there are some changes. Most of the changes are because some [part of the establishment] has realized there's money to be made. You know? but if we're deluding ourselves that the culture is in any efficient or rapid way changing because these voices are showing up, I think that's a mistake. Does that make sense? That's the only way I can put it concisely. There's a lot there to parse out.

EDGE: You make a lot of good, intriguing points. I can only imagine how much energy will be in the room for those post-show discussions! How did it come to be that Office of War Information ended up involved with bringing "American Moor" to Boston? Did they reach out to you and say, "We'd love to get this play to our town!"?

Keith Hamilton Cobb: Well, that's what they ultimately said. We did it in New York in a little theater on the Lower East Side, three summers ago. It was a very short run with a theater called Phoenix Theatre Ensemble. These are people I've worked with before. We did an eight-show run in this little space, and, of course, it was Lower East Side. It's the middle of nowhere! We were down there doing our thing in this little space. It wasn't really on anybody's radar. It was one of our early productions. The show has grown [since then] but we all knew it was something important there; the audiences that came were very responsive. The post-show discussions were very lively. And they have a relationship with Office of War Information; the producers of both theaters are colleagues, and so this came back around where I guess they were speaking about it. [O.W.I. producer] Peter Riesenberg wanted to read the piece; he read the piece; and I guess they began to discuss how they could work together, so it's really a co-production between the two theaters that we're here.

For me and my director/producing partner, Kim Wield, we just feel like this show is so important. Again, I don't say that - I always stress this - I don't say that about my body of work in general. This culture of flagrant self-aggrandizement is nothing I was born into and nothing I was ever good at. I don't like it. I'm not going to run around saying, "Look at me, look at me, look at me!" But this piece is important. This piece has depth and value and meaning, and needs to be seen, and so she and I embrace every opportunity and every serious conversation about doing it in this country. We need to generate a national discussion about what this play is about.

That's where we started this discussion, you and I: How do we have that conversation? This show is a vehicle and a catalyst for that. It's my job and my responsibility to entertain all offers and opportunities to do it.

EDGE: Your TV and film career spans different genres, from starring in the science fiction series "Andromeda to a recurring role on the gay drama "Noah's Arc," and a few years on "The Young and the Restless" and "All My Children." Do you have favorite genres to work in, or do you love all of it?

Keith Hamilton Cobb: No... I don't love all of it. I think that would be disingenuous to say that. Genres of daytime TV and sci-fi television are different, but the same in that they are very formulaic dramas that kind of go on and on and on. The stories are fairly simple and they're not character-driven, they're plot-driven. Somebody's coming up with a plot and they sort of force the characters to fit whatever the plot is going to be. That's a very difficult thing for an actor, to be working toward something and then they say, "Okay, now he's going to be a good guy." And you say, "Why? How do I embody those changes? What do I come up with in terms of a dramatic reality in order to be able to act that, without everybody saying, 'Oh, that's ridiculous!'?" And of course, the audiences of those shows don't care that it's ridiculous, necessarily, but - I should speak for myself - as an actor, it is very difficult.

At the same time, I think whether we're looking at "Noah's Arc," or whether we're looking at "Andromeda" or "All My Children," they are all very distinct characters that I was able to create that I am proud of. I didn't really think that any of them were the best show. When I look at the wealth of really polished, high-end television being made today, I would like the opportunity to do that. Actors just want the opportunity to expand their body of work, so it made no sense to say no to anything that was a job. "Come and do this for a while." "Yes! Because I'm an actor, and that's what I do." So, I said yes to everything. But I also needed to leave. I also needed to say, "That's enough. I need to get on and do another thing to continue to deepen and broaden this body of work." I'm not an actor you see for 25 years on a daytime show or anything else. And some actors are quite fortunate in that respect and build these story-diverse bodies of work, and I'm envious of them that they are allowed that. I still strive for that.

I just like depth. Actors like challenges. Actors like complexity. When you see "American Moor," you'll say, "There's a character there who is navigating very complex issues every day of his life."

EDGE: So will you be focusing on "American Moor" for the next few years or do you have other projects you're already looking forward to?

Keith Hamilton Cobb: I will be focused on this. I tell people I am sort of chained to this project because, like I said, it is so important, and if I walk away from it, then it never gets heard from again. I think that would be a great tragedy, so I am focusing on it until it gets where it needs to go, and I hope that it very soon. There are some writing projects that I'm doing. Everybody's trying to write a novel...


There are regional theatrical venture that come up from time to time, and if there's space I'll go do two months here or there, and that's fun.

"American Moor" runs July 19 - August 12 at the Boston Center for the Arts. For tickets and more information, please go to http://officeofwarinformation.com/current-production

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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