Arts & Culture Maplewood Schools / Kids South Orange

Reflections on Shakespeare and Race at Columbia High School

Photo by Line Marshall.

When stage and television actor Keith Hamilton Cobb visited Columbia High School on Friday, May 31, 2019, there was a buzz of excitement in the air as students interested in Shakespeare, one of Cobb’s specialties, sat patiently waiting to hear about the passions of Cobb, words of advice, and, if students were lucky, an excerpt from his self-penned one-man show, American Moor.

American Moor captures the humor, humility and frustration of an actor who has achieved great success as a “big, black man” in the Shakespeare theatre, but who struggles with type-casting directors who say to him directly or indirectly, “You’re not right for Romeo, you’re not right for Hamlet,” basically only seeing him as an Othello. As the protagonist of American Moor, a fictionalized version of Cobb auditions to play Othello, and, while doing so, meditates on the unflinching irony of white directors attempting to instruct him on how to be a black man.

Cobb began his presentation with a demonstration on superficial vs. intrinsic qualities, featuring CHS Senior Brandon Dalambert. He asked the audience to imagine Brandon as Shylock from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, a role traditionally imagined as a white and Jewish male. In Cobb’s own words, this demonstration proved that “as lovers of Shakespeare…we should not be steered in any direction…the plays were about us…at the root, they’re all the same,” and that “we’re still discovering what’s in these plays.” He asked students to name the character traits possibly shared by Brandon and Shylock, of which intelligence and wealth were two possibilities, among others. These declarations prompted a critical self-reflection from both the students and teachers in the audience. What does it mean to portray a character written 400 years ago? Must one look like the archetype of a character in order to portray him or her? Or is there universality to Shakespeare’s plays, regardless of the ethnicities of cast members?

Photo by Line Marshall.

This idea was further explored in a demonstration featuring the writing and critiques of CHS Junior Nicholas Goguen-Compagnoni. As an assignment for Ms. Line Marshall’s World Literature class, Nick and his classmates wrote “missing” soliloquies for The Merchant of Venice. In his assignment, which Cobb selected for dramatization, Nick explored the disputed homosexuality of one of The Merchant of Venice’s central characters, Antonio. Nick’s scene and other scholarly works posit that Antonio is a closeted gay man enamored with Bassanio, his closest friend. As Cobb brought Nick’s scene to life, he questioned Nick, asking him what he thought the scene should look and feel like. With Cobb’s guidance, and Nick’s growing confidence as a director, the students in the audience watched as the scene transformed from a pretty good rendition to an evocative lament of a love that could never be. Cobb also asked his audience to consider that “theater is a metaphor for the greater world,” and, consequently, that a story as old as The Merchant of Venice can contain timeless plights, but also timeless truths.

After some encouragement by a CHS teacher, Cobb performed an excerpt from American Moor for his audience. Students were captivated by his ability to transport them into his character’s mind, revealing with humor, anger and solemnity what an audition for Othello is like from his perspective.

Keith Hamilton Cobb and Columbia High School students. Photo by Line Marshall.

Cobb left the CHS community with reminders that “it is incumbent upon you to [get rid of] these racial boxes, cultural boxes,” and that “Shakespeare…is a living text.” It was impossible to be in the audience and not feel the sincerity, the enthusiasm and the inquisitive nature of Cobb. His visit, in offering new ways to view Shakespeare and race, left a lasting imprint on the students who met him, and potentially on the community of South Orange-Maplewood as a whole.

American Moor opens off-Broadway this fall.

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