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Arts, Sports & Culture

What’s Moor: Actor brings play about 'Othello' and racism in theater to Pittsburgh

Keith Hamilton Cobb in "American Moor"
Carol Rosegg
/
Point Park University
Keith Hamilton Cobb performs "American Moor" in 2019.

Keith Hamilton Cobb loves Shakespeare. If he didn’t, there would be a lot less to “American Moor,” his acclaimed two-actor play about racism in the American theater.

The award-winning work, which ran off-Broadway in 2019, depicts a Black actor auditioning to play Othello for a white director who thinks he knows the role better. Cobb's play is funny, infuriating, insightful, and impassioned. And it’s about championing art and truth-telling as much as it is about deconstructing white privilege — which, in this play, often amount to the same thing.

The show makes its Pittsburgh premiere with four performances Feb. 17-20, at Point Park University’s Pittsburgh Playhouse.

Cobb, 62, is classically trained and in addition to many television roles (including stints on “All My Children” and “The Young and the Restless”) has acted his share of Shakespeare, from Laertes in “Hamlet” to Oberon in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Though he’s never played the Bard’s Moor, he said he was once fired from a production of “Othello.” That experience too was grist for this play about the role all Black male actors (especially those of a certain physical stature) are encouraged, even expected, to aspire to, even as they’re ushered away from Hamlet, Lear, and Romeo Montague.

“I think ‘American Moor’ is a play full of hope,” Cobb said in a recent interview at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, where he was continuing rehearsals that night. “But the tragedy of it … is that the protagonist loves Shakespeare. He fell in love with Shakespeare, and then a white culture told him which Shakespeare he would be allowed to do. So now, all these years later, he's standing in front of this white director doing the one role that they said he could do. And the white director is still telling him how to do it.”

“Othello” tells the story of a Moorish general in 1500s Venice, which is otherwise white. He is a war hero who has married Desdemona, the daughter of a Venetian senator. But his downfall is engineered by Iago, a soldier with a professional grievance who manipulates him into a jealous, murderous rage against Desdemona.

In “American Moor,” Cobb stars, as he has since its earliest incarnations, starting in 2015. The two other members of the creative team, actor Josh Tyson (who plays the director), and director Kim Weild, have also been on board for much of the play’s lifespan. The production is part of Point Park’s New Artists Series. Another local connection is Weild. She met Cobb in New York theater circles but is now also a professor in Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama.

The play’s running metaphor involves Othello’s famed Act I speech to the Venetian Senate, where the Moor justifies his secret marriage to Desdemona. Othello’s stories of combat in distant lands are what attracted her: “She gave me for my pains a world of sighs. / She swore, in faith, ’twas strange, ’twas passing strange; / ’Twas pitiful, ’twas wondrous pitiful.” In “American Moor,” Othello’s struggles echo the actor Keith’s attempts to interpret Othello his way, despite a director who thinks the Moor should be, for instance, more “obsequious.”

Othello is Shakespeare’s lone leading role traditionally played by a person of color. Appropriately enough for a Shakespeare-themed play, Keith relays most of his objections and insights to the audience in monologues and asides. “You’re gonna teach me something about Othello?” Keith asks rhetorically. “I know a hell of a lot more than you about being the big Black man in the room.”

The 2019 off-Broadway production, at the storied Cherry Lane Theatre, was well received. The Boston Globe called the show “a must-see,” and the New York Review of Books described it as “a witty, passionate, furious, and movingly intimate record of an African-American actor’s often unrequited love for Shakespeare.” A writer in Slate said it offered “a promising avenue into the future of Shakespeare performance.” The play even garnered attention in the scholarly press.

But the love that playwright Cobb and actor Keith share for Shakespeare is hardly unconditional. Cobb adores the language — the way Shakespeare’s rich verse feels on his tongue, and how it lets him give voice on stage to emotions a Black man might find himself discouraged from expressing in everyday life.

Still, Cobb called the characters in “Othello” archetypes, rather than fully realized humans. The plot is “full of holes,” he said, and the way the play is traditionally framed is problematic, too: Cobb called it “very troublesome as a culture that we buy this story of the Black men who get some nonsense whispered in his ear and kills his wife.”

The Elizabethan era predates the invention of modern concepts of race, and Cobb said contemporary artists are able to portray racial attitudes only as we understand them today. The word “Moor” in Shakespeare’s time could refer to almost anyone who wasn’t white (including Arabs, for instance).

But to his antagonists, like Iago, any difference between Othello and “white” Britons is crucial, and exploitable. (As late as the 1960s, Othello was typically played by white actors in blackface, including Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier; exceptions include the celebrated, world-touring 19th-century Black American actor Ira Aldridge, and 20th-century stage and screen icon Paul Robeson.)

Some actors continue to revere the role. In a 2009 White House Poetry Slam, James Earl Jones (who has played Othello on stage) chose to perform the Moor’s speech to the senate. And playing a cross-gender-cast (a character's traditional gender presentation was disregarded) Othello in a 2020 stage production Jessika D. Williams seemed in one interview to describe the play less as racist itself than as about the racism of Othello's enemies.

For his part, while he harbors no desire to play Othello these days, Cobb seeks to address such issues with his ongoing Untitled Othello Project, in which he convenes theater artists to work through the script, exploring each character in depth. The idea is to create a revised version of the play that is still Shakespeare but more psychologically plausible.

The Playhouse staging of “American Moor” will be the first since the pandemic started — and also since the nationwide protests for racial justice, following the police murder of George Floyd in 2020. But while the culture — and perhaps the theater world more than most — claims to be newly sensitized to white supremacy, Cobb said the essential message of his play remains relevant. “All these quote-unquote changes that were ushered in by COVID and the public lynching of George Floyd, as huge as they are, are not enough to change the trajectory of a culture that is operating off of hundreds of years of racist structures,” he said.

“American Moor” receives four performances in the Playhouse’s PNC Theatre. More information is here.

The show is accompanied “he is me, and I love me dearly,” a multimedia art installation inspired by a line from “American Moor.” The exhibit, curated by Sean Beauford and Alisha Wormsley, runs Feb. 8-20 in the Playhouse lobby.

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