Keith Hamilton Cobb’s award-winning solo play, American Moor, was one of the most talked about plays last season when it was staged at The Anacostia Playhouse, fresh off a critically acclaimed run in New York.
Not only did audiences take notice of its strong story and powerful message, but it attracted the attention of those at the Folger Shakespeare Library, the world’s largest collection of Renaissance literature, and the ultimate resource for exploring Shakespeare and his realm.
On March 28, 2016, American Moor was officially inducted into the famed library’s permanent collection, along with the production script, the stage manager’s prompt book, and other items from The Anacostia Playhouse production.
“We have a vast collection of not only American theater, but early modern Europe. Part of the collection includes a vast prompt book collection and we have thousands dating back to the 18th Century, used by stage managers and playwrights, marked with scene changes and notes and transitions, which are very important documents for the history of performance,” says Dan DeSimone, chief librarian at Folger. “One of the things we are continuously looking for is examples from important plays from all periods.”
Plays from the 21st Century has been an area not cultivated by the library until now, and DeSimone sees American Moor as a very important addition to the collection.
“There’s a bibliographical record created and it becomes available to scholars looking for examples of 21st Century prompt books,” DeSimone explained. “It was Michael Witmore, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, who made it happen because he was really moved by what he experienced when he saw this play. There was not only a historic interest, but an immediate response that he had as he experienced what was going on at the Anacostia.”
Now, Cobb’s script will forever be included in the library’s archives for any researcher to access over the ages.
“Michael and Alan Katz (the library’s circulation assistant) saw a performance and asked if I would be willing to donate some part of the show to the library, and I wasn’t going to say no,” Cobb shares. “Michael told me he thought it would be important to the idea of living Shakespeare in America and they wanted to preserve it.”
For those unlucky enough to have missed it in DC, American Moor is an 85-minute one-man play written and performed by Cobb that examines the experience and perspective of Black men in America through the metaphor of William Shakespeare’s Othello.
Cobb wrote the first draft of American Moor in a day and a half, telling the tale 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.”
Cobb donated the items, calling his payment “the validation” by this preeminent organization, and the library decided to recognize the Anacostia Playhouse as well, creating a fund to offer them a stipend for the acquisition.
Not only was the playwright excited that his play would forever be a part of the Folger Library, but he was equally thrilled that the Anacostia Playhouse was formally endorsed by Folger Library.
“I couldn’t be more thrilled. I have always advocated that this is as much about the Anacostia Playhouse as it is about me,” Cobb says. “I believe very much about the issues and I want the nation to be talking about this, but when you take it back to brass tacks, theater that matters in America is hard to make. Money drives all of it. No one had time for this script. But this little theater, run on a shoestring, looked at it and knew it was about their audience and who they exist for. There’s a real bravery in that.”