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As a black male actor, Keith Hamilton Cobb gets asked the same question many other black male actors are asked all the time: “Have you played Othello yet?” He hasn’t. But in the play he wrote and stars in, American Moor, he places himself in the shoes of a black actor auditioning for the part in front of a white director. The play deals with contemporary ideas of race and racism in the theater and in culture more broadly, and it’s currently showing at Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia Playhouse.
Keith Hamilton Cobb joins us, along with the director of the play, Kim Weild. Plus, Adele Robey, Executive Director of the Anacostia Playhouse, joins to talk about the community’s response to the theater being robbed on Christmas.
Produced by Mark Gunnery
- Adele Robey Executive Director of the Anacostia Playhouse
- Keith Hamilton Cobb Playwright and actor; author and star of American Moor
- Kim Weild Director of American Moor; Associate Professor of Directing, John Wells Directing Program, Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Black male stage actors often get asked one question more than any other: have you played Othello yet? Our guest Keith Hamilton Cobb is no different, and, no, he has not played Othello yet. He did, though, write a play called "American Moor" about a black actor auditioning for the role in front of a white director that touches on issues of diversity, representation in theater, creative collaboration across racial lines. He joins us in studio. Keith Hamilton Cobb, thank you so much for joining us.
KEITH HAMILTON COBBThank you, sir. So happy to be here.
NNAMDIHe is the author and star of "American Moor." But first, we'd like to hear about an update about the theater hosting the play, the Anacostia Playhouse, which was robbed on Christmas Day. Joining us by phone is Adele Robey. She is the executive director of the Anacostia Playhouse. Adele, thank you for joining us.
ADELE ROBEYHi, Kojo.
NNAMDIAdele, obviously, we've done several events at the Anacostia Playhouse ourselves, and so our audience is fairly familiar with it. But tell us what happened when you found -- when you walked into the theater the day after Christmas at the end of last year.
ROBEYWell, I opened the back door and came in and saw a couple lights on and said, oh, you know, people just left lights on or somebody's here, Theater Alliance is here. And as I came in and noticed a few papers on the floor and then a few more papers on the floor and then an empty hole where the sound computer had been, I thought: oh! It has actually happened. Something I never even thought would happen, or has even crossed my mind for years, that anyone would break in. But, in fact, they did break in and made a pretty big mess and sort of grabbed a lot of stuff that they could, I'm assuming, sell.
ROBEYAnd I was pretty much and continue to be a little bit of a state of shock about it. It was a little bit traumatic, but everybody -- first of all, the police, who we love here in 70 precinct, were right here in about 30 seconds...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Well, the Anacostia Playhouse has become an anchor in that community since you established it there back in 2013. And so I expected after I read the story about the robbery that there would be some response from the community, but it turned out to be maybe more than any of us expected. A volunteer from the theater created a GoFundMe page to raise money so you could bounce back from the robbery. How did that go?
ROBEYWell, that was Nikki Peele, who has also been on the Kojo Show...
NNAMDISure she has.
ROBEY...and you know is just the livewire of Anacostia. And she jumped in and did it. And it went beyond anybody's expectations in a very short period of time. And if I sound a little shaky, I am still overwhelmed by it. The support from the community and across the entire city and region has just overwhelmed me, and they made me feel that we have a lot to live up to.
NNAMDIIt validates your decision to go there in the first place, because the community appreciates you.
ROBEYWell, that's been validated a lot of times in other ways.
NNAMDIAnd is being validated right now with the play "American Moor" that's at the Anacostia Theater.
ROBEYIt is, and have fun with Keith.
NNAMDIWell, we want you to stick around for a while, even as we begin talking to Keith, because...
ROBEYOkay. I'm here.
NNAMDI...we're going to bring in the director a little bit later. But Keith Hamilton Cobb, the play you wrote and star in, "American Moor," is the one at the Anacostia Playhouse right now. What inspired you to write that play?
COBBBeing an actor and being a black man...
NNAMDIA large black man.
COBB...a large black man...
COBB...and realizing in maybe the 52nd year of my life that there was no separating the two, and that people had been perceiving me as all of the above, at the same time. And there were decisions being made because of all of the above. You know, there was no decision made about whether or not Keith Hamilton Cobb would be good for Hamlet void of a consideration about race. Right? And I don't know why it took me to 52 years old to realize that they were inseparable, inextricable, but it did, and it was a profound revelation.
COBBAnd I began to write this piece, what was ostensibly, at the time, a solo piece, and has expanded to a second actor. And I had eschewed such work all my career. I didn't want to do a solo show. I thought that was the thing that people did when they didn't have anything else to do. But I was feeling these things so profoundly, that I wrote this down. And it all came out in, you know, just sort of this vomit of creativity, all at once, in the course of a day, that over the past six-and-a-half, seven years, the last four with my current director Kim Weild, has taken on a shape that people from across every racial, you know, ethnic, age, sexual spectrum speak back to see themselves reflected in. And it has been this really wonderful, profound revelation for all of us involved on the creative team.
NNAMDIYou can Google Keith Hamilton Cobb, and you will see what kind of career he has had. He was a classic -- is a classically trained actor. He's worked on stage all over the country. He's worked in movies. He's worked on television. But somehow or the other, by being 6'4" and being a black man, apparently, a part of this play is obviously autobiographical.
NNAMDIApparently, you have been asked way too many times (laugh) about playing Othello.
COBBYeah, I think the first time, I couldn't have been 20 years old, and, of course, way too young to play the role and not having had the time to amass the skills to get through it. You know, I think, you know, people like Orson Welles have famously said, you know, the young men have to play Hamlet and fall on their faces early, so that they can play it when they're actually of age. You have to allow actors in classical work -- in Shakespeare, particularly -- to fail in these roles. And, you know, I would've failed royally any number of times.
COBBAnd I am so bold as to say that I might fail now, were I to play it tomorrow. I don't know. It's not a question of whether or not I would play the role well. I'm not particularly interested in the role, unto itself. I'm interested in how I have been perceived as one with this role, purely by virtue of being an actor and being a large black man. And if, in fact, I am the guy, then shouldn't you let me play it, let me -- listen to me when I bring to it my experience, my understanding of the role over this 50-plus years?
NNAMDIAs a matter of fact, that's the thing that struck me most about the play, the fact of you talking about listening to you, because trying to teach a black man how to play Othello is kind of reversing the natural order of things, (laugh) so to speak. But, Adele Robey, why did you want to bring this play back to your theater? It's been there before. And how do you think it speaks to the community in Anacostia?
ROBEYOh, boy. I wanted to bring it back, because it deserves to be seen as many times as possible. This play is really important. It's obviously about -- you know, Keith has written it. It's very personal to him, but it speaks to everybody. It speaks to everybody who ever been in a position of not being seen, not being heard, or what they have to say that's important in the conversation. And in Anacostia, as you know, Kojo, we all really like to talk a lot (laugh) and discuss. And this gives us a great opportunity to do it again.
ROBEYA few years ago, when we did it, we had the most wonderful conversations that wanted to go on all night, sometimes. And this time, we're really partnering with the Folger, which is so wonderful, who are helping to come at it from the direction of the Shakespeare and the text and the history of how Shakespeare has been taught and how some of that might want to change. So, we're also going to have a teacher's conference go along with this. So, for any number of reasons -- and plus I'm just totally in love with Keith, and he can come here any time he wants to. (laugh)
NNAMDIBut I know you've been having discussions after the play, and one of the things that struck me about watching this play, Keith, was that I'm not an actor, not trained as an actor, and so I had not thought of Othello in the way that you, as an actor, had thought of Othello by being a black man, that you would have much more insight into what Othello was facing at that time than a white director might have, and hence the line: listen to me, listen to me. To what extent has that been a feature of your acting career?
COBBWell, you know, I can't quite make the same case for a TV show or a play where somebody is doing the work to perhaps cast nontraditionally just because they want to be available to the idea that there may be other people who can play these roles. It is not my role. I didn't write it. As an actor, I'm coming into any role and saying, you know, I'm bringing something specific. You hired me, so you must want some of that. It gets very, very specific and very, very personal when we're talking about Othello, because this is the role that, for 30 years, somebody's been saying, Othello, Othello. Nobody says Romeo. Nobody points at you and says Romeo, you know.
NNAMDINobody says King Lear.
COBBNobody says King Lear. Othello, Othello, Othello. So, the young actor, in finding his place and honing his craft and finding who he is as a human being is being made to consider this role again and again. And then he reaches the age to do it. Now it's your turn to listen.
NNAMDIJoining us by phone is Kim Weild. She is the director of "American Moor." She's an associate professor of directing at the John Wells Directing Program at Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama. Kim Weild, thank you for joining us.
KIM WEILDThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIKim, how did you get involved with this play?
WEILDWell, Keith and I have been friends for about 30 years. We met at New York University as undergrads. And when he was first doing the piece, he performed it on the lower east side at the Wild Project with the Phoenix Theater Ensemble. They helped present it. And I went down to see it, and I was blown away by it, quite frankly. I thought it was an exceptional piece of writing, an extraordinary performance. And we went to dinner afterwards, and...
NNAMDI(overlapping) But after you saw it -- after you saw it and you thought it was extraordinary, did the thought enter your head, I guess I might have some problem directing this, being white.
WEILD(overlapping) Yeah (laugh). Absolutely, it did. Yes, it did. And, you know, we went to dinner and we talked about the piece, and gave him some notes, and said that I would do anything I could to help him get the piece produced. And then it went on a particular journey that Keith can probably speak to better than I can. And he eventually came back to me and asked me if I would direct it. And what you just mentioned about me being a white female came up. And I was the one -- it wasn't Keith -- I was the one who said, you know, I'm not sure I am the right person to direct this, and...
NNAMDIAnd Keith was the one who said, that's why I want you to do it.
WEILDYes. And he said, you are, and that opened the door in a great way.
COBBYou see me smiling over here. There's this interesting thing going on in the play and, I think, in the world. At the root of this piece, you could say it's about racial perspective, racial bias, the American theater, and other things. But for me, at the root, is this idea of unconditional love, which is something everybody likes to talk about, but nobody can quite practice. And I think it is at the root of human interaction. Spirit is talking, and then there's all this flesh piled on top of it that gets in the way. And that is the dynamic between the actor and director in "American Moor."
COBBYou know, they have this sense that there's something between this, a middle ground, but they can't quite reach it because of their physicality, because of their perspective as human beings. That is the dynamic between Desdemona and Othello in the play, which is then acted upon by the flesh and ego and fear and, you know -- and that is the dynamic between Kim Weild and myself that has luckily had the time over 30 years to gestate and grow so that we can trust it now. It doesn't mean that there are not obstacles in our work together as we continue to evolve this piece. There is still perspective. There is still humanity that takes so much work to clear out of the way so we can just trust and love, you know. But that's what's going on. That's what's going on.
NNAMDIYour character in this play has always wanted to play characters written by Shakespeare. Have you -- what is your relationship with the work of Shakespeare like?
COBBWell, as the character says in the play, and you're right, it is -- you know, I would be lying to say it wasn't, to a large extent, autobiographical. As the character says, I began to look at the language in Shakespeare as a means by which I could express my personal human African American emotional self without the pushback or the judgment or the fear that that causes to be my emotional size, my emotional depth, to say all the things that we could go out into the community and watch black men doing and saying to one another, but code-switching as soon as they're talking to the cop, the person at the post office, whoever.
COBBYou know, I could put all that into these characters, because there, it is somehow legal. It is somehow accepted. And the irony is that even there, even doing that, somebody is judging whether or not you can take on that mantel. Who are you to play Shakespeare?
NNAMDIWell, my own relationship with Shakespeare began as a 12-year-old in an all-male school when, in a production of Julius Caesar, I had the honor of playing Portia. (laugh) But Kim Weild, same question to you. What is your relationship to Shakespeare's work like?
WEILDI would say Shakespeare is one of my first loves. I've studied it. I've performed it. I have not directed it, but I've spent a lot of time studying it as an actor. I started out as an actor and performing Shakespeare. And it's extraordinary. We have no other writer like Shakespeare who is able to the depth of what he accesses in terms of thought and emotion and what Keith is talking about in terms of size and giving people permission to express themselves fully and bring themselves fully to something is such a gift. And his writing and the musicality of it, of course, is gorgeous. So, that's some of my experience with Shakespeare.
WEILDAnd then one of the things that I think distinguishes "American Moor," the writing of it is something that Keith has accomplished that he does not talk about. But I feel like him, as the director, is that he has -- his writing is in kinship with Shakespeare. And so there are rhythms in it, things that he's saying and the way that he is saying them that somehow he has tapped into and is evoking Shakespeare's voice, but also as his own. So, it's this -- it's quite moving, actually.
NNAMDIWell, Keith, Kim has said that this play says things that people are thinking, but which are not being heard enough in theater. And we seem to be talking a lot more about that in the year since you have written this play. But talk about what some of those things are.
COBBWell, we don't talk about our failing educational system in the way that it needs to be discussed, and that includes education in theater arts. We are not training directors and actors to the same standard. I daresay we are not training journalist and critics in the same way. That very often, my experience has been over the past several years that critics are there to further augment what the production's already done. So, they'll say, that thing that they're doing over there, that may not be Julius Caesar, I know it's supposed to be, but isn't it a wonderful thing, you know. Isn't it a great thing? And totally circumvents the purpose of criticism allowing us to be introspective, look at the work and transcend and go to another place, culturally.
COBBSo, you know, that's one question -- one conversation not being had. Certainly, the question of racial bias and how it permeates everything in this American culture, everything.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid we don't have a great deal of time left, so you're just going to have to go see "American Moor" at the Anacostia Playhouse. Keith Hamilton Cobb is the playwright, actor, author and star of "American Moor." Thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIKim Weild is the director of "American Moor." She's associate professor of directing at the John Wells directing program at Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama. Kim, thank you for joining us.
WEILDThank you so much, Kojo. It's been an honor.
NNAMDIAdele Robey, you still there?
ROBEYI am still here.
NNAMDIAdele Robey is the executive director of the Anacostia Playhouse. How long does "American Moor" run?
ROBEYIt runs through February 3rd.
NNAMDIGo to the Anacostia Playhouse and see it. Adele, always a pleasure.
ROBEYAlways a pleasure with you, Kojo. Thank you so much.
NNAMDIToday's discussion on "American Moor" was produced by Mark Gunnery. Our conversation on charities during the federal shutdown was produced by Monna Kashfi. Coming up tomorrow, we continue to explore the local affect of the government shutdown by looking at how some federal employees are using substitute teaching and other jobs to make ends meet. Plus, many incarcerated DC residents are serving sentences in federal prisons across the country. We look at how the shutdown is affecting their facilities and what a new federal criminal justice overhaul could mean for their experience on the inside.
NNAMDILater this month, we'll discuss the rise of temporary labor and the gig economy in the Washington region. If you're a temp, contract, freelance, part-time or adjunct employee, day laborer, Uber driver, dog walker, head to KojoShow.org/blog and take our anonymous survey. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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