Red Bull's informal livestreamed benefit reading of AMERICAN MOOR will premiere LIVE at 7:30 PM EDT on Monday, October 12. A recording of the livestream will be available until 7:00 PM EDT on Friday, October 16 – then it disappears. GET DETAILS
Shakespeare’s Othello is often imagined as the tragedy of an interracial couple destroyed by jealousy, set against the background of Venetian geopolitics. Why should audiences today want to see such a story staged? What can we learn from such a tale? It is tempting to say that the play teaches us about our common humanity, our sad mistakes and fallibility. But such a reading belies the implicit bias built into not only the play but also the institution of theatre itself: the racial singularity of the protagonist and, in many productions, the resulting isolation of the actor playing that role; the presumed whiteness of the theatre audience that the play is supposed to reach; the fact that the very name Shakespeare conveys authority and thus, under the guise of classical theatre, reproduces existing hierarchies that position racialized peoples’ life experiences as “unique” against the supposed universality of white humanity.
Keith Hamilton Cobb’s American Moor interrogates these assumptions by bringing his own story to bear on Shakespeare’s tragedy. This is the tale of a talented Black actor eager to exercise his craft. Yet time and again, he is asked to play Othello. He may not play Hamlet, he may not play Romeo, he may not play many of Shakespeare’s plum parts (including Titania, for gender and sexuality matter, too.) Yet when he gamely agrees to act the Venetian, he is repeatedly challenged by white directors. They tell him to sit; they tell him to stand; they say over and again that he is too angry—or not angry enough. Their comments are often offered with a smile, for they believe they are on the side of justice. But their suggestions consign the Black actor to represent neither the admiration Othello garners as a general nor the degradation he suffers as a Moor, neither his eloquence and strength of character nor his frustration and pain. The result is a caricature, a cardboard cutout of a character, one that remains palatable for a white audience.
What can we learn from American Moor? It is tempting to believe we are above the fray, that we sympathize with Othello, with the Black actor playing that role, and with Cobb as the performer playing the actor playing that part. But the white director in the tale sits in the auditorium, the only other speaking character in the play—and a stand-in for the audience. Black and other BIPOC playgoers may well identify with the actor onstage, but white spectators, the play insists, must ask how they can undo their own racialized gaze. Keith Hamilton Cobb shares his own story, a universal tale about what it means to never fit the roles we are assigned. The play skillfully asks us to see ourselves in that story, to call up our own memories of being marginalized or misunderstood. At the same time, it asks for our engaged introspection, to consider how we participate against our own wills and explicit intentions in a system of racialized violence whose effects are all the more pressing and evident at this crucial juncture in time.
Erika T. Lin
Associate Professor of Theatre and Performance
The Graduate Center, CUNY
On Thursday, October 15, join an interactive discussion Keith Hamilton Cobb, director Kim Weild, and scholar Erika Lin. MORE INFORMATION