Like most actors who have been in this industry for 25 years, Keith Hamilton Cobb, who opens this Friday in his play American Moor, has his share of audition horror stories. But one particular audition really got under his skin.
“I had this audition that didn’t go particularly well. This young man sitting across from me didn’t really care about what I had to say or what I thought, and after three minutes, I was done and left the room,” Cobb says. “I thought, ‘what could he possibly know about me to make a decision on such a thin criteria? It’s never going to result in the best actor for the job.’ I was incensed by that. This was messed up for all of us. We are not hearing or seeing us on any level.”
Cobb also feels there has been a decline in the quality of American regional theater, not so much because of the talent but because play selection is determined by the bottom line.
“Rich people go to the theater, poor people don’t. To run a theater, you rely more on things they want to do –staging Oklahoma or the last thing on Broadway because it’s something they will recognize, or a movie they made into a musical because of accessibility,” he says. “There’s less and less of exploring issues and creating change, and what’s being done is done on tighter and tighter budgets. You might have two weeks to rehearse a play, and we have to lower our standards of excellence and pat ourselves on the back for doing a great job in two weeks. All of this is detrimental to the theater culture.”
All of these things led Cobb to write American Moor, the story of a large, middle-aged, black man auditioning for the role of Othello, while responding to suggestions from a white, often younger, artistic director who presumes he understands how to maximize a black character for believability.
“In the broadest sense, this is about the African American male experience, as seen through the metaphor of Shakespeare’s Othello,” Cobb says. “There are direct parallels I think in creating the role of Othello and looking for integrity in the role, to the black man in America and what he deals with and endures on a day to day basis. That is what the play is about.”
The playwright wrote the first draft of American Moor in a day and a half, as the words flowed out of him.
“I thought this was something astounding and I don’t say that a lot about what I write, and I write all the time,” Cobb says. “I knew there was something there. I began to edit and rewrite and here we are 36 drafts later and people are responding overwhelmingly positive—and a very diverse cross section of audience.”
It’s been about two and a half years since the inception of the piece and the actor has performed in the show in New York and other cities. He’s excited to be bringing it to DC and to the Anacostia Playhouse.
“It’s an unapologetic look into a theater industry irony that serves as metaphor for our most pressing societal condition, and an issue that is certainly fresh in the mind of the greater DC community: white culture dictating rules of conduct to a black culture from an often-inadvertent place of privilege,” he says.
In the play, a black actor (played by Cobb) is standing in front of a white male director who is trying to instruct him on how to play Othello and wonders, “how would you know what drives him? You made up some stuff and it’s your agenda I’m serving. When are you going to sit down with me and talk to me about what I know?”
This is something that Cobb believes not only happens in theater to the black man, but in life. He believes that while more African Americans may be in the American theater today, they are playing character roles and supporting roles, not the leads by and large. That’s something he also ponders in the play.
“When you begin to break it down, it’s also about Shakespeare and what he wrote and how it’s interpreted, and more importantly, who gets to do it—who gets to play the lead roles,” Cobb says. “How many black Hamlets have you seen? How many black Romeos? For me, it’s a big question.”
The director who Cobb has used previously for the show was unavailable for the DC run, so he called on noted DC actor/director Craig Wallace to direct at Anacostia.
“He’s a black actor with an extensive resume, who I met at the Shakespeare Theatre when I was working there in 1990,” Cobb says. “I sent him the script, and his response was one of someone who understands being a black man, an actor and being in the industry. I’m very excited to be working with him again.”
The 53-year-old Cobb has seen a great deal of success in his career. He was once one of the most popular stars on daytime TV, starring as Noah on All My Children in the late ’90s. It’s a time that “seems like a lifetime ago,” he says. Of course, TV fans also know him from Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda, and Noah’s Arc, but it’s the theater that truly owns his heart.
“This play comes from issues in my life as I grew into manhood as a black man in America, fell in love with Shakespeare and wanted to work, had training and made my way through the entertainment industry on a lot of different fronts,” he says. “For 87 minutes, I am standing alone on stage and all of these issues are in me.”
American Moor will run July 15 to Aug. 16. Tickets are $25 general admission, $20 for East of the River residents, seniors and students. For more information, visit Anacostiaplayhouse.com.