Pittsburgh Playhouse uses Shakespeare to examine racism with American Moor | Theater | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Pittsburgh Playhouse uses Shakespeare to examine racism with American Moor

click to enlarge Pittsburgh Playhouse uses Shakespeare to examine racism with American Moor
Photo: Carol Rosegg Photography
Keith Hamilton Cobb in American Moor
The resume of Keith Hamilton Cobb includes a long list of stage, television, and writing credits, among others. Now Pittsburgh will get to see him in person during his latest production of American Moor. It's a work, which he wrote, as well as performs, that asks big questions about representation and racism in the theater industry.

Staging from Feb. 17-20 at Point Park University's Pittsburgh Playhouse, American Moor follows a middle-aged African-American man auditioning for the role of Shakespeare’s character, Othello, opposite a much younger, white male director. A press release says that over the course of the 85-minute stage play, the director and the actor engage in a dialogue that “mirrors all the racial miscommunication of this present historical moment while the actor, in inner-monologue, also navigates the emotional turmoil of life as an African-American male.”

The play is also described as being “laced with laugh-out-loud moments of levity but also with heart-rending sadness as it boldly illustrates the politics of America in this era of racial reckoning.”

The play ran off-Broadway at New York’s Cherry Lane Theatre in 2019 and is the recipient of an Elliot Norton Award, an AUDELCO Award, and two IRNE Awards. The script for American Moor is also part of the permanent collection at The Folger Shakespeare Library, touted as the world's largest collection of materials relating to the bard and his works, from the 16th century to the present day.

Cobb says he has always been taken with the works of Shakespeare but found opportunities for him to perform the bard's work to be limited.

“I was about 22 when I began performing the plays, but the extent to which I was allowed to explore Shakespeare’s characters, the vast majority of whom are white, was never in my control,” says Cobb, whose background includes working with The Shakespeare Theatre of Washington, D.C. “White theater-makers have historically chosen who will get to work in their theater. As a young African-American man, Shakespeare’s few Black characters were, to most people in hiring positions, more of an obvious fit for me than any of the others.”

Cobb, who, along with his co-star Josh Tyson, is being directed by Kim Weild, adds that his “long-time contemplation of Othello was simply a matter of him having been the character most spoken of when the conversation was about me and Shakespeare."

Considered one of Shakespeare’s tragedies, Othello follows its title character, a military commander driven to kill his wife by Iago, a calculating officer of a lower rank. The “Moor” in American Moor comes from an outdated term used to describe those of African descent, including Othello.

Cobb says he was invited to bring the play to the Pittsburgh Playhouse by the theater’s managing director Drew Martorella and Garfield Lemonius, dean and artistic director of the Conservatory of Performing Arts at Point Park University. He says they “thought there would be an opportunity to not only mount the production but to engage Pittsburgh artists of color in creating and showcasing work on themes directly relevant to the issues that American Moor urges.”

“To me, I was being offered a forum to present the difficult questions that the play asks to a new audience," says Cobb. "I feel that the play is so important to the discussions that we keep failingly attempting to have, around race on the one hand and American theater on the other, that I could see no reason not to come."

He adds that the play will also come with an "insightful art installation" curated by Sean Beauford, and featuring work by Pittsburgh artist Alisha Wormsley and those in her Sibyls Shrine project. Cobb says he has also been asked to engage with Point Park students about "the importance of making work like American Moor and to discuss their own purpose-driven lives as artists."

"Clearly, the University is understanding that the work of being artists, the work of training artists, and the work of making relevant and norm-challenging art is all of a piece," says Cobb. "This is how they walk the walk."

American Moor. Showtimes vary. Thu., Feb. 17-Sun., Feb. 20. Pittsburgh Playhouse. 350 Forbes Ave., Downtown. $35-53. playhouse.pointpark.edu

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