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American Moor: Keith Hamilton Cobb discusses race through Shakespeare

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
American Moor: Keith Hamilton Cobb discusses race through Shakespeare
Keith Hamilton Cobb stars in “American Moor.” (Photo: Courtesy of American Moor)

In the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theatre, Keith Hamilton Cobb stands in front of the audience with his hands crossed respectfully, a large, forced smile on his face. The bulk of his autobiographical show, “American Moor”, depicts him auditioning the role of Othello for a white director. An offstage voice gives him directives while he forces “give-me-the-job” enthusiasm. He turns to the audience and says, “This little white man is asking me if I have any questions about being a large black man in a play about a large black man.”

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Cobb is an elegant, classically trained actor with an impressive resume. In “American Moor” he explains his love of Shakespeare and his experience as an African American actor with humor, frustration and fury. Though he has drive and talent, Cobb repeatedly is turned down for roles like Hamlet and Richard III and relegated to whatever black role the show has to offer. He’s told “Othello” should be his greatest aspiration.

For Cobb, Shakespeare was a reprieve from the restraints of his every day existence. In Shakespeare’s world he could say and do things that he would never be able to in real life. The heartbreak he expresses when he finds himself stereotyped within that world is crushing.

This relegation generates a disdain within Cobb for the Moor character. But as the show goes on he relates more and more to Shakespeare’s black general, who constantly is made to act as the white characters around him wish. As we hear the white director explaining Othello’s position to Cobb, who has a far deeper understanding of the predicaments of a black man, he turns to face the audience. “I began to feel like I had a brother who can’t defend himself,” he says. “And you’ve been slapping him around for 400 years.”

The show runs almost two hours and despite its impactful message, could benefit from some trimming. At times Cobb’s inner monologue felt a little too stream of consciousness for the show’s narrative structure.

But for all the frustrating moments where Cobb is interrupted, silenced or shot down, there are several deeply satisfying scenes where he snaps back. He berates the Eurocentric director for ignoring the racial component of the play. He refuses to belittle Othello’s character by playing him as a minstrel. He lives the dream of every victim of racism and of every slighted employee, and in doing so, exposes the core problem with the American theatre system. He says, “You are afraid of me. I am afraid nothing will change. And these are the forgeries of jealousy.”

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