“All This Life Made This Play”: An Interview with Keith Hamilton Cobb

KEITH HAMILTON COBB’S American Moor begins with an actor waiting to audition for the role of Othello in front of a white director. Over the next 100 minutes, the actor reflects on his life in theater, anatomizes the director’s shallow hubris and privilege in asides to the audience, and testifies to the long history of violence against Black men in America. The play asks, whose story is Othello’s? Who gets to tell Othello’s story in America? Why does America still resist hearing Othello’s story?
A searing exploration of art, commerce, and race in the United States, the play has evolved and been refined over hundreds of performances. In the last seven years, the Drama Desk Award nominee Kim Weild has directed the play as it has toured the United States and United Kingdom. Last year, the Globe Theatre invited Cobb to perform American Moor within a kilometer of where Othello, The Moor of Venice was staged in the early 1600s. The Folger Shakespeare Library incorporated the play into its collection as an important contribution to our understanding of Shakespeare’s canon. I saw American Moor at Mount Holyoke College’s Rooke Theatre, while Cobb was in residence at the College and UMass Amherst in November 2018. His program was co-organized by Professor Amy Rodgers and Marjorie Rubright, both scholars of early modern drama, and included a range of community engagement — from talkbacks to an Actor’s Studio.
I sat down with the playwright in Amherst, Massachusetts, in early November to talk about American Moor.
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JOHN YARGO: Your play is so many things — wonderful, infuriating, exuberant. How did this work come together as a synthesis of three decades of experience as a stage actor?
KEITH HAMILTON COBB: At least! I haven’t done the math in a while. I finished school in 1987 and did an apprenticeship that summer: 32 years. It makes me uncomfortable to think about it!
I was a writer before I was an actor. Through a series of events, I discovered I wanted to act, and I wanted to act Shakespeare. I began with some limited knowledge of what I might confront as an actor in the theater. I knew it was difficult to create a career as an actor, but I wasn’t aware that the difficulty would be further exacerbated by the fact that I was not only a Black male, but also a large Black male, and perceived in American culture in particular ways because of that fact.
Racial bias is a complex thing not just in you and in me, but between us. The parameters and limitations imposed by racial bias are going to be present. It was that fact, pressing hard on my spirit, that culminated in me producing a rough version of this play — beginning as disassociated ideas and feelings, more a release than anything else, that was then honed over seven years into what it is now. I’m excited by what it now does.
One of the topics you engage is how the structure of American theater works against the best kinds of theatrical experience.
When I came along, we were handed plays by Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Eugene O’Neill. I was told this was American theater. Then at NYU, I was exposed to agitprop and political theater, and some of it was good, but some of it was a little too obvious — on the nose, overly clever. Once you got away from both American realism and the intentionally odd, theater could get boring rather quickly.
I want to be told stories — I still yearn for the American storytelling tradition — but when there was storytelling, I found it was always somebody else’s stories, and none of it was available to me. I started to look around for roles I could play. There was Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson, but that canon becomes quite limited too.
I love the role of John Proctor in The Crucible. That role started me thinking about a life in theater when I was quite young. Richard II is another role I have wanted to play. The poetry is exquisite. He has always been depicted as an effeminate fop to somehow justify why he was such a failure. I think it is more interesting that he has all the tools to be a great king, but he was yes’d to death. I think it’s a great role. I still await that.
One day, I was auditioning for the role Oberon and Theseus. The director was saying this young-guy-just-out-of-school stuff. He was the director, so I had to listen. He was asking for what he wanted to see evinced in my performance, but the text itself was excised. Everything he wanted Shakespeare had given him, but it had been edited out. So I did my audition, and it was fine, and he was looking at me like I did the most amazing audition he had ever seen, or the worst piece of shit he had ever seen. He asked me to go outside and wait. Then, the monitor told me I could go home. I don’t know what it was about that day, but I realized that what we do in theater is so often unloving, unkind, and stupid — it doesn’t give us what we want. This director didn’t know what he wanted. We have lost a solid understanding of Shakespeare and what it can do. The training is lacking; I was in a production of Romeo and Juliet, directed by a 38-year-old, and his understanding only goes back to Baz Luhrmann and Leonardo DiCaprio.
It seems like theater makes possible a certain kind of community. While I was watching American Moor, people around me were moving in their seats, zipping up their jackets, shuffling. Maybe, the audience is pulling in different directions, but we’re all in this space together having to face the truth or a truth. It is a community at least for a couple hours. What kind of community can be formed by the experience of theater?
First, I think you’re right. Audiences don’t know what to expect from theater, and it’s expensive, but once people are in there, they see themselves reflected in the play. It may make them uncomfortable. What do I do with this moment? If we’re talking about American Moor, people from across the spectrum have responded to this work brilliantly and thoughtfully. We are having a real and authentic moment with this play.
The play does not offer audiences singing and dancing. It does not offer them puerile sexuality. It offers them an authenticity. We are living in a culture that is completely dishonest with itself. We are used to hearing platitudes: American exceptionalism, and all that horseshit. We don’t know what to do with this era of “post-truth.” None of us has the time to get up in the morning and be honest with ourselves, but that honesty is in the play.
I think American Moor is exploring just that question of dishonesty around race. How are we, as a culture, dishonest with ourselves about race?
How much time do you have? The nature of American chattel slavery is something around which neither you nor I could possibly wrap our heads — the American cotton boom and how it produced all the riches this country enjoys. It began the Industrial Revolution, and there have been numerous ancillary industries around the world, all tied to slavery and the slave trade of the Middle Passage.
After a while, the trade was banned. The slaves were taken from the Southeastern states, chained together and marched overland for 1,000 miles. What does that look like? They shit while they’re walking, they piss while they’re walking. No one cares how they feel — they blatantly disregard these human beings. The father is torn from his family, the children from their parents. When they get to the Southwest, men and women who have come from Virginia and Maryland are lined up to pick crop through the push system. While they were slaves, they were involved in other trades — wheelwrights, carpenters — doing work that engaged the right side of the brain. In the Southwest, they just pick. They are given cornbread and water. They are whipped as a form of control over them. We think about whipping, but we think about it abstractly, as we do with mass shootings today, because we are numb to what it really is. Whipping was inconceivably, excruciatingly tortuous, causing convulsions. You pass out. You lose control of your bowels. You wake up and are beaten again. It is supposed to be so terrible that the farmhand would rather work to death than be whipped again.
The only way to justify this torture and perpetuate this system is to construct a narrative of the nonhumanity of the Black. We might have ended slavery, technically, but that structure of thinking never goes away. In fact, it is improved upon, as white society continues to benefit from the riches made there. America can’t own that, and the lingering accumulative guilt in the culture is massive.
This theme of testimony being carried forward is there in Othello and in American Moor. Othello says near the end, “Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate, / Nor set down aught in malice” (5.2.358–359). Hamlet says something similar, but in that play it seems that Horatio can be trusted to tell his story. It is unclear who would tell Othello’s story though.
That’s a really lovely awareness. Hamlet says tell my story, but there’s someone who would tell it. Hamlet’s story, on some level, could be considered heroic. Othello’s doesn’t seem to be. His story is much more an infamy. In Othello, I posit that there are any number of reasons for Othello to murder Desdemona. He takes responsibility for this brutal act. I get the sense that he knows he is a disliked human being just for being who he is. In a culture rife with misogyny, his crime isn’t why Othello is condemned. This claim that the Venetians care about women is a lie. We’re living that lie right now too.
In American Moor, I use that Shakespearean quote to say, “Get over your own narrative. Be introspective enough to say when you talk about me you are projecting something.” The actor character is being honest and self-deprecating throughout the play. He’s also saying, “These things are not right. Unlike Othello, I haven’t done anything horrible. He’s still associated with the worst. Why do you treat me this way? I love this role. I’ve understood this role. What else can I do? I’ve run out of ways to please you. And you’re never happy.”
In American Moor, the actor character recounts how early on, he identified with Titania from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and wanted to play Juliet from Romeo and Juliet, but an acting coach told him he should play a role more in line “with his age and experience.” What is the play saying about masculinity?
I wanted to play Titania. Oberon is less interesting. The salient idea of that scene is, “See me as I am.” We should encourage and nurture a large African-American male’s desire to explore the roles of Titania and Juliet. In the arc of this actor’s story, he is only ever seen as Othello, Othello, Othello. This is also a metaphor for Black life. From the time a young Black male is born, he is only given so much room to change and grow. They shot Tamir Rice when he was so young — they rolled up on him and shot him dead.
You asked me about masculinity: I have always thought there must be something non-masculine to make Othello as attractive as he is to Desdemona. He must have softer traits, sensitivities. She rebuffed an endless line of these Venetians who were trying to embody all these archetypes of masculinity. Then, she meets this general, and he’s comfortable in his skin, even though he and his skin are in isolation.
In American Moor, the auditioning actor is reading from the scene of Othello standing before the Venetian Senate. The white director thinks Othello would be obsequious. He would bow and scrape. The Black actor believes this great Venetian general would be self-possessed, assured, defiant even. This is the quote from the play: “[Y]ou see, in matters of race, throughout my American life, whenever some white person, well-meaning or otherwise, has asked me to ‘be open’ they have invariably meant, ‘See it my way.’ And in this instance, in this play, that is unacceptable. You think I want to be your Othello.”
There is no getting around it in Othello. The eponymous hero goes down in flames. The villain is in some ways triumphant. I have to find my way to that defeat with integrity. It does not start with obsequiousness. I have to protect the integrity of the character. That narrative of Othello as moron would be fine for a lot of people. The narrative of a Black American male as moron would be fine for a lot of people. It’s heinously absurd, but it would make it easier to refute that history of violence against Black bodies.
I did this play at a satellite campus of Pittsburgh, in the heart of Trump country. I visited McKean County prison. I got to sit around with 10 inmates to discuss American Moor. It was remarkable talking to them about this play. Like every audience, they found things with which they could relate. A Black inmate said, “This is the story of us in this country. Basically, what I have been told and what my people have been told since we got here, is: ‘We brought you here for a reason. If you’re not going to do that, we’re turning off the lights.’”
I resist the idea that Othello should be obsequious to this white structure. How did he become a general? The Senate didn’t come to him in a time of need because he was obsequious, but because he earned it. I feel the same way: I have earned the size that I take up. I have earned my opinions. I have earned everything that I am, and I don’t care how I have threatened others. The mere suggestion that I should somehow be less fills me with revulsion.
You have a background in television as well. You played an intergalactic mercenary Tyr Anasazi in Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda and Noah Keefer in All My Children. How did that experience shape your views of commerce and art?
The nation is hungry for myth. Again, all that is honest about that need comes crashing against commerce and capitalism. There is this plethora of shit that is handed to us. The human animal will fuck up a wet dream.
In those two shows, I tried to create characters. I tried to mesh the backstory I crafted with the lines they gave me. I took my training from Shakespeare. The characters I played on television are highly wrought. They steal scenes, but the story doesn’t grow, doesn’t deepen. Andromeda was made for syndication. So I thought, let’s blow shit up. Let’s show some flesh. But no one really cared. I said to a director on Andromeda, “I read in Brando’s biography that he would go in on the first day and phone in the performance. If the director didn’t notice or say something, then he’d phone in the rest of the performance. If he don’t care, why should I?” The director I was talking to said, “Are you calling yourself Brando or me a bad director?” If I hadn’t done all of that work, though, there wouldn’t have been American Moor, and I am proud of this play — it is wonderful, important work. It is innovative theater.
I completely agree with that. I walked out of the theater changed, and I have heard the same thing from others who saw it.
I don’t say that about all my work. All this life made this play. If you had asked me even five years ago, what is the purpose of your life, I would not have been able to answer you. I’ve been faithful and patient; if you look in my home, you will see diplomas and posters of the shows I have done. Why have I dedicated all this intention, if not to do the thing I have striven to do? This is what was supposed to happen, and it is very exciting. It makes me feel good about my life and its purpose.
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John Yargo is a PhD candidate at the University of Massachusetts whose research explores race and ecological apocalypticism in the global Renaissance. His writing has been published in The Millions, The Ring, Fiction Advocate, and the Xavier Review.
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