42 pages 1 hour read

Keith Hamilton Cobb

American Moor

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 2019

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Summary and Study Guide


American Moor, a play by Keith Hamilton Cobb, was first performed in 2013 and published in 2020. The 2013 performance was at Westchester Community College (Cobb’s alma mater) in Valhalla, New York. Cobb says the 2013 version of the play was rough around the edges when compared to the polished, updated version that opened off-Broadway at Cherry Lane Theater, New York City, in 2019. In addition to writing American Moor, Cobb, who is a classically trained actor from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, also performs in the main role. Cobb helped found The Untitled Othello Project, a theater group that lays bare the racist ideas inherent in Shakespeare’s Othello and questions whether any future productions of the play could ever avoid these racist tropes—a question that American Moor also engages with.

American Moor is considered a one-person play, because the second character, the Director, appears infrequently only as a disembodied voice. For most of the play, there is only one character: the Actor. He is described as a tall, Black man, talking to the audience about the process of auditioning for the title role in William Shakespeare’s Othello. The play explores the experiences of Black men in the United States, both in the world of professional theater and in society at large. Using the plot, characters, and historicity of Othello, American Moor discusses systemic racism in the United States in the 21st century.

American Moor won the 2022 Cleveland Critics Circle Award for Best Touring Production, the 2018 Elliot Norton Award for Best Solo Performance, the 2018 Independent Reviewers of New England Award for Best Visiting Production and Best Visiting Performance, and the 2015 AUDELCO Award for Best Solo Performance. It also received a place in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Permanent Collection.

The guide refers to the 2020 Methuen Drama paperback edition.

Content Warning: The source text discusses systemic racism and anti-Black prejudice, both historic and contemporary to its composition. The guide quotes and obscures the playwright’s use of racial slurs.

Plot Summary

The Actor, a 50-year-old Black man, stands alone on stage, rehearsing a monologue from Othello for his impending audition. He tells the audience about how he got into Shakespearean acting in college: As a Black man in America, he found that many people were threatened by his speaking tone and emotionality, so he found Shakespearean acting to be an outlet for his emotions. However, an early acting teacher discouraged him from playing heroes like Hamlet or Romeo, telling him to play someone in his “experience” like Aaron the Moor from Titus Andronicus.

The disembodied voice of the Director interrupts his monologue—the Director never appears onstage, and he carries on all interactions from his position somewhere in the audience. The Director asks if he can clarify anything about the character of Othello for the Actor. The Actor addresses the audience in response, expressing his frustration that the Director is asking the Actor—a “large, Black man”—if he has questions about playing a “large, Black man” on stage. He thinks the Director should be asking him about the role of Othello, not the other way around.

The Director wants the Actor to play Othello’s monologue before the Venetian Senate with exaggerated emotion and obsequiousness. The Actor instead gives an understated performance, drawing upon his expertise and understanding of the character. The Actor believes Othello would be understated in that moment, since he was forced to perform for the Senate like the Actor is being forced to play Othello by following the Director’s directions. The Director interrupts this performance and reiterates his instructions. Addressing the audience, the Actor again expresses his frustration about how the Director is presenting himself as being more qualified to understand Othello than the Actor is. The Actor juxtaposes the Director’s fine arts education with the Actor’s lived experience as a Black man in the United States. He hopes he is getting through to the Director.

The Actor explains to the Director why he thinks Othello should be portrayed the way the Actor plays him, focusing on how Othello might be feeling in front of the Senate. The Director dismisses his interpretation and also asks him to use a standard American dialect while speaking. The Actor becomes frustrated and addresses the audience again. He says he never aspired to play Othello when he became interested in Shakespeare. Instead, he found Othello embarrassing and stereotypical, just like all the early roles for Black actors his first agent found for him. Whenever people told him he’d make a “great” Othello, he was offended that they associated him with a violent man like Othello. However, after speaking to a mentor about the expectations people put onto Othello’s shoulders, the Actor began to empathize with him, thinking of him as a brother and wanting to protect him.

The Actor once again tries to explain Othello’s motivations and interiority to the Director, who dismisses him yet again. The Actor knows he’s doing badly at his audition. He thinks about how long it will take the Director to unlearn the prejudices that inform his current approach toward the Actor, Othello, and race in general. He thinks that the Director wants to put on the same version of Othello that has been recycled for hundreds of years. However, that is not the story the Actor wants to tell.

The Actor wants the Director to recognize that he doesn’t know Othello like the Actor does. The Actor sees Othello’s humanity, from the boy he once was to the aging man with unrealized dreams that he became. The Actor feels like he is part of Othello’s lineage and a longer lineage of Black men who are forced to refashion their actions and emotions so they won’t “scare” the people with racial prejudices. He wants the Director to embrace what scares him.

The Actor and Director get into a small verbal spat, speaking over one another. When the Actor finally speaks again, he talks about how difficult it is to have conversations about race. He wants the Director to talk with him, connect with him, and truly get to know him, even though it is difficult.

The Director thanks the Actor for auditioning, and he dismisses him. The Actor exits the stage.