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The Writer's Block: Theatre maker Keith Hamilton Cobb

Updated: Dec 19, 2021

Welcome to The Writer’s Block, a new feature where we hang out with writers and talk about the art of storytelling. Our interview was recorded, transcribed, and gently edited for ease of reading.


TR is pleased to welcome Keith Hamilton Cobb to The Writer’s Block. Keith is a playwright, actor and overall theatre maker. He is currently focused on his play American Moor and his touring interrogation of Othello called The Untitled Othello Project in collaboration with Midnight Oil Collective

TR

Welcome to The Writers Block! Let’s get started. I’m guessing from our previous conversations, and from what I've read about you, that you came to writing through acting? Were you an actor first?


KHC

No, I was an English major. I was writing before I really ever thought about acting.


TR

Really? I didn't know that!


KHC

I was writing poetry, I was writing essays, I was writing short stories. I don’t know if any of them were very good! But I enjoyed the process of writing from when I was a very little boy. I had gone to school to study English and to better those skills and to become some sort of a writer. I found myself ultimately stymied and discouraged because of the way that English and writing were being taught. And I may have this wrong, I may be remembering this wrong but my sense is that there were no mentors. There were people who would tell you what was wrong with what you were doing, but there was no one who could tell you how to do it right. And I didn’t learn well that way. I was just discouraged. When you couple that with the result-oriented person that I was, it led me to the first lesson in writing, stop reaching for the result... just do. I had to learn that in acting as well.


I began exploring writing for theatre. When I was out in LA I was writing for television, mostly to create projects for myself. Some are better than others. We never produced much and I wrote a number of plays. I still think American Moor was written by somebody else. I think it was this coterie of ancient spirits that used me as a channel to tell that story because there are things in it that astound me. I look at that and think, “you know you're not that good a writer!” So I don't know what that's all about.


TR

I love that! These other plays that you wrote. Do you still have them? Do you ever dust them off and take a look?


KHC

Yeah. There are a handful of things for the stage and another handful for TV or film projects. I mean they reflected a place and a time. I’m very aware of what I was feeling then, what I was doing then, and what my skill level was at the time. Nothing rivals the work that I've been doing in the past ten 10-15 years. I guess I could take something out if somebody wanted my pilot for the Hannibal story… Hannibal of Carthage. I had been trying to market it in LA for a number of years because the character was very exciting to me and I thought, with all the historical television being made, that it would be a good one with a North African hero. I wrote any number of different versions of that. They’re quite good but you know, my phone’s not ringing.


TR

Yet! That's interesting that you started writing so young. Theater programs, at least in my experience, were focused on acting and crew which is obviously valuable but very little on the playwrighting. So I guess that's what I mean about coming to it through acting. Were you doing plays and then kind of learned the craft that way?


KHC

Yeah doing plays and wanting material that reflected me. I mean aspiring actors in a two year college were being handed stuff that is generally of the western Canon. I guess if somebody cares, and again this gets back to the question of mentors, they could say, “yeah I want the black kid to be Stanley Kowalski right? I wanna do Streetcar but I want the black kid.”.


I began writing for stage because I wanted to play stuff. I wrote monologues, I wrote little plays. I had a couple of student friends who were also interested in acting and theatre. We had a little company, ya know for a minute…at WCC for a couple of years.


TR

What was the name of the company?


KHC

Three Brothers Theatre!


TR

Love it! And did you put stuff up?


KHC

We did!


TR

That’s cool.


KHC

Yeah, I was very much involved you know? I did A Raisin in the Sun there and I was learning how much I liked to be an actor but there was never enough. And there was not really an apparatus you know? There were professors who took an interest but there was not enough of an apparatus to really nurture students. I mean I didn't find much of an apparatus when I got to NYU so I guess I can't really blame anybody at a Community College, it's just how we run our training institutions and what they are at this point. But that’s not what you called me to talk about!


TR

Well maybe it is I don't know! So you went from WCC to NYU, when did the love of Shakespeare come? That seems to be such a passion obviously.


KHC

I really discovered that at Westchester Community College. I had seen productions that luckily were quite good, where the language was made to live through the performances of actors who knew how to use it. Who knew their way around the verse. There's a lot of spoken Shakespeare where the performers don't quite know what it is they’re talking about. If you can't say what you mean you never mean what you say, you know?


But I saw some productions where it was all very clear and it was like magic to me. I was like “oh this is stuff I've been trying to read! This is what it's for. This is what it's meant to do”. It was handed to me as literature, and you read it, you write about it, you parse it out and that's fine but that's not why it was written.


TR

So the magic is what pulled you. And then you studied acting in NYU correct?


KHC

Yes I did. I took some Shakespeare courses in English department which they begrudgingly allowed me to do. There wasn't a lot of crossover, I had to get special permission. I don't quite know why. I had space and time in my curriculum to do it and it was strange. It was a bit of a battle but I took two segments of Shakespeare for two semesters and that was the last that the English department saw of me.


TR

Are these all the kernels and bits and pieces for American Moor? You started out writing, then studied Shakespeare and acting. Is this the arc from WCC/NYU to present? When did the idea for American Moor start to kick around? And I hate when people ask this, but is it autobiographical? I’m assuming some of it is because you were reading all this magical language of Shakespeare and I would imagine that as an actor of color, that's where it ends. Talk about obstacles.


KHC

Well yeah. It didn't need to end but that's kind of how it comes down in our society. There are any number of factors that cause that, all stemming from the same root. And that is a structure that has great power and wealth, that can dominate just about everything in the American culture, ever since there was an American culture and it hasn’t evolved, right? So people born into that culture fall prey to what the master wants. And what the master wants is to believe that white European descended ownership of Shakespeare is legitimate. That there's a certain way to do it, there's a certain way to read it, that there are certain things to think about it and there's not a great deal of entertainment of ideas outside that limited box. Not unlike any number of different types of cultural capital in the country.


Growing up in that, everything contributes to where I am now. So yeah, there was an appreciation of literature, an appreciation of writing. Then an appreciation of Shakespeare, then discovery of and appreciation of acting. Then a desire to learn this work better, to know more about it, to study it, to be good at it. Not just acting but acting Shakespeare. And all of that was within the framework of an American racial structure that was biased in how I was able to access any of that or how I was encouraged or not encouraged to pursue it. What opportunities did I have? In training? In casting? In all levels of opportunity.


I was 49 or 50 years old when the day came that I had an auditioning experience that made me really angry. And I had been auditioning for 30 years and I had gotten used to the process of auditioning. Knowing that you just go in there, and you do your work, and you leave it in the room, and you have no more power after that. You will leave and they're going to call you if they want to call you and you need to go on with your life. That’s a skill right? Going in and leaving it in the room and being able to just go on and forget about it. And this was an audition for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the director was considerably younger. And white. It wasn't so much at the time that he was white, as the majority of directors that I’ve encountered in my life are. I think the issue was more that he was half my age and telling me how to act Shakespeare.


And it was an interesting thing because they have to see 30 to 40 actors in a day so they'll redact material so the auditions aren’t long. And then he would say, “I need to see this sexual energy here, and this over here, and in this scene his sense of machismo….” It was all stuff that they redacted from the text. I sat there thinking, “if you had left it alone, I could just say this stuff and it would all be there. But now he wants me to actively show him stuff he's removed from the play:” He never asked what I thought or what I knew about the role. He wasn’t interested. And that’s what he’d been taught. He was taught, that he’s in charge. In another respect he's been taught that he's in charge in life and in the world. You're the white man, you're in charge, and what you believe is most probably correct, and that's insidious, it's intrinsic, it's in the culture. White people still walk around with that head you know? “Why shouldn’t I be able to tell you?”


Anyway, I did the audition and it was fine. They kept me sitting outside for a long time and then didn’t invite me back in. They said go out and wait because we may want to call you back and I sat there and sat there and sat there and they came out and said, “You can go.”


For whatever reason, as I’ve said I’d had millions of auditions, I was unable to put that down. I was so angered by what that was, both as an African American and just as a theater maker! As somebody who had a deep love for theater and knew that there was a way to do it that could create transcendence, that could really expand hearts and minds and move people to grow and to evolve the culture, nourish the culture in ways that theater was meant to do. And in ways that Harry Potter on Broadway is just never going to do in any big way.


So much of what becomes theatre is product. With that in my mind, I left there thinking, what value is his A Midsummer Night's Dream gonna have if he is auditioning this way? If he's hamstrung the actor from the moment he walks in the room by taking away half the text and giving him a reader that is nothing like the person he is reading opposite in the play? What is this ridiculous process that you're engaged in and why would you want to be engaged in it? I didn't get it. It is never going to evolve … this is just the mediocre recycling of these plays into perpetuity. And I was pissed off. A colleague said why don’t you write about it and I didn't want to… I wasn't gonna write! But I went home and I began to riff on the experience of going into that room and it turned into American Moor because behind the flood gates there was all this other stuff. As you say, the bits and pieces, but there were bits and pieces 50 years old that all sort of came together in this moment. These are all of the things culminating in you at this moment in your life. That's why you're so pissed off right now. All this stuff is showing up together and wanting to come out of you at this moment. And it did! And as I say, I think that the ancestors were involved in that. And they have been involved since. They have been involved in many, many ways.


TR

I remembered in one of our previous conversations about America Moor that you said something like you were just going to follow it where it went. I saw it in the Cherry Lane Theatre in the fall of 2019. That was before this academic track which seems like it's taken on a life of its own. How did that come about?


KHC

Well the show closed. We had evolved it and produced it and pushed it everywhere we could and got it off-Broadway. And the trajectory of course was Broadway. The thought was, that this is as profound a piece as anything that is playing on Broadway right now, it’s about something of the moment and needs to be there generating that discussion… that national discussion.


TR

It's the discussion that's kind of happening now in the theater world.


KHC

It’s pretending to happen.


TR

Yeah.


KHC

It’s pretending to happen… We closed American Moor off-Broadway and the discussion ended. It ended for any number of reasons. None the least of which is that some of the producers didn’t understand what they had. Didn’t understand how to market it or how to hold it as the unique thing that it was. We also just had a rotten window. We opened off-Broadway, just after Labor Day. There weren’t really butts in seats until two weeks after Labor Day, and then two weeks after that we had to close because we had an end date in the theatre. They hadn’t reached out to non-white communities to come see this work cuz it wasn’t what they knew how to do. So it’s again seeing everything through that lens of whiteness and thinking if this doesn't work it must be your problem. It must be your bad play. But it gets very deep and we really don't need to talk about all that in this interview because it's just…when you begin to really get into the weeds about what happened there, it's a textbook case of oblivious, absolutely oblivious racism. You’re doing a show that is indicting the American community for its inability to see past its privilege and its racial biases and make theatre that means something right? It's doing all that and you know that's the play you have in your hands, but you are… in your practices, doing exactly what's going on in the play. It wasn’t for lack of good faith on everyone’s part, just some. But white privilege is a difficult veil to see through. The irony of that is kinda too deep to get your head around.


TR

I just saw Trouble in Mind and it’s making me think of your play.


KHC

Was it good? Was it something that has a value 60 years later or is there a better way to tell that story that would be impactful to a 21st century audience?


TR

That’s an interesting question. There’s good writing, the actors were phenomenal. It’s interesting as a reference point, how much we haven’t changed. But, to your point, yeah, I’m sure there are strong current voices that might tell the story better.


KHC

There are a ton of 60 year old plays. There are also some new ones, like American Moor, which bite really hard. These other plays, depicting “black joy” Who gets to decide what’s black joy? Do white producers decide? It’s a mess. And it needs to be talked about.


TR

Yeah. KHC But getting back to what you were asking, the play closed. And wasn’t going on and then COVID struck. So I turned my attention to the publishing. It had already been embraced in the academic community for what was in it. The Methuen imprint only helped to disseminate it throughout academia. That has been great and continues to be great. It’s put me in touch with what is really a burgeoning field of early, modern critical race scholarship. It put me in touch with all of these people who are really exciting human beings to talk to about, not only this work, but race and Shakespeare, and all of the things that I had been feeling that gave rise to American Moor. And a thing that I had noticed in conversations around American Moor as it was evolving, was people would ask, “What about Othello? You raised some ideas about Othello, can we see that? Let’s talk some more about Othello”. And I realized that it was a dodge. I said, you realize in 50 years you’ve never wanted to see or hear my Othello. You never wanted to hear my take. Never interested in my ideas, even when I was being cast in the role! You didn’t want to hear what I had to say. You wanted to put something together in three weeks and put it on the stage, and usually that involves some big black guy acting like a monkey, while a white guy got to steal the show and create affinity with the audience. You never wanted to talk about Othello before, the only reason you want to talk about it now is because you realize the spotlight is now on you, on all the harmful manifestations of your whiteness and privilege. You realize that you are the one being indicted and you want to change the subject. Follow?


TR

Absolutely.


KHC

So my awareness of that, and even my speaking to it didn’t change the fact that that was the question that kept coming. And I thought as we went into lockdown, the only way that I’m ever going to be involved in Othello, because I say no all the time. I say you don’t have the tools, you don’t have the vision. You don’t have the time, money, actors. We don’t have any of the tools to interrogate this play in the way that it needs to be interrogated. We need to find something in it that isn’t the recycling of the racist trope that it has become. Maybe that it always was. But I thought if I’m ever going to do this, if I’m ever going to engage this discussion, I need to create something that is nominally playable. I need to evolve something that gets us from the beginning of the arc to the end with dignity for this character. Not letting him off the hook, not skirting his accountability. He does the thing, but I see that in the community all the time. I see members of community who I don't like very much, but I care for because I know what's on them, I know what makes African Americans as a culture, what the cultural behavior is, I know what it comes from I know why it exists. I know the directions it can go, sometimes it can be extremely transcendent sometimes it can be the other direction entirely and there are factors that influence both. No good or bad people right? It's the impact of circumstances. and I know the circumstances. So I feel the same way about Othello. I'm not trying to tell you that he wouldn’t kill the woman in a fit of emotional distress. I'm saying let's go back and look at all the factors that would have made that so. Let’s make sure they're all in the play, including the behavior and culpability of every human being around him.


TR

Is this what The Untitled Othello Project is?


KHC

Well I wrote an adaptation, I call it an adaptation but it's probably the wrong term. It’s really just editing because I love Shakespeare's language. I’m all about narrative and keeping the text as the text. I’m not interested in rewriting it but, if you were going to fill the holes that Shakespeare has left in this text, if you were going to make sense of the behavior… This play is written like a ‘B’ horror movie where all of the characters do whatever advances the plot and not what human beings would do. I can’t abide that if what hangs in the balance is the dignity of this human being that is supposed to be like me. So…cut away, cut away, cut away, rearranged a little bit. And now I have this thing that seems better, but I’m not going to know for sure until I put this on the bodies and minds of a bunch of actors. And give them room, permission, time, resources, money, feed them. Care and feeding! To get naked with it and to go deep with what this is. And look at these issues of misogyny, and religious prejudice and racism. Let’s look at em! Let’s really look at ‘em. Why are these characters who they are? And you know that takes months! That takes six months, eight months right? And nobody, no organization that comes to the theater-as-product model, who embraces theatre to make money can embrace that idea because you can’t make money if you’re rehearsing for eight months. How do you do that? No matter what the product might be...I'm gonna do this recycling because that's what I have time for, I'm gonna do my three to five weeks first rehearsal to stage thing and pay the actors as little as I can. Then take all of the proceeds myself and move on to the next thing because that’s American business. It has nothing to do with art, it has nothing to do with considering or parsing out an issue. It has nothing to do with looking at a piece of text to discover what is really there and what we haven’t seen in all the 400 years and what might move us and what might change us…it’s not about that. It’s just about making money.


I decided that the only way I could do this was to bring it to universities and ask universities to partner with me in hosting a group of actors in residency at the institution for two weeks at a time. Minimum two weeks at a time. “Can we come there, can we work there? Can we work in your studios, can we engage your students, can we talk about why Othello, why now, why Shakespeare? Why make theatre? How do we make theatre? Art versus business? What is the artist’s responsibility?”. Because all this training that they’re having, they’re gonna get pushed out into the world, they’re gonna stand in line to be the next “working” actor…but in what? And that’s the fact right? They’re gonna be shoved out the door. They’re not gonna join a law firm, or a doctors office, they’re gonna stand around in line to get scrutinized…the very thing that happened to me, that I did for 30 years! I want to be able to expand the thought processes around what theatre makers and English students are going to do looking at this work. What are you looking at? What are you trying to see? What is the value of this work for you? And what is your responsibility to it? Why are you here? What’s the purpose? How can you help?


Here we are at this institution, interrogating this play, trying to figure out if at the end of the day there’s something here that is worthy of putting on a stage, worthy of ever putting on a stage again. And we may very well find that there’s nothing. And that will be just fine. That will have been valuable work.


TR

So you’re using the original text or your adaptation?


KHC

Right now, we’re in the place in the process, if you tune into any piece of this thing that we’re doing at Sacred Heart, you will see us doing a close reading of the Arden 3rd series revised edition of the play. We haven’t gotten to the place in the process where I start to talk to this ensemble about the work that I’ve already done and say what do you think of this?


In fact, once you start working with actors and they start to express and explore, you say “hmmm maybe my own ideas about rearrangements of the text are all wrong!” So all that I did in that lockdown summer is up in the air because they're already showing me that it's not necessarily the way to the truth.


TR

So these actors are students in the university or they’re people that you brought in?


KHC

These are professionals. There is the ability and the opportunity for a unique partnership with each institution. We can ask, what would best serve your students? You see what we're trying to do, we're trying to find space and time and resources to interrogate and play. We wanna do that, and the institution can say, what’s in it for us? What do we get back? And I'm saying you tell me what you need. You look at this work we are doing and you tell me how you see us interfacing with your students, and we will create that at your institution. And that will be our partnership. Go to Sacred Heart and ask what the collaboration was for them, how the partnership worked for them, what it brought them.


There are parts of the process where I can envision working with theater performance students. Take for instance this Senate scene. We bring nine core characters in this play and we're trying to build a world in a rehearsal studio where there are senators coming and going and soldiers in and out, not just supernumeraries but the senate, it’s very real, very intentioned. And there's work to be done with students if they're going to people those roles in our rehearsal process. They can work with us and help us to build this world so that these nine core characters can be in a world that they really feel. To do that, students are gonna have to get really good in their ensemble playing, and if they don't know how to do that then we can spend the day teaching them how!


TR

Is that the agreement that you landed on with them?


KHC

That is out there for the schools that want to embrace it. Some schools may want other things. I'm saying make it what you want. It’s supposed to be about all of us. If we're coming for a two-week residency where we're working on this stuff, we'll let you know what we need to do the work. You tell us what the student community needs from us and let’s see if we can’t meet each other’s needs.


The beautiful sort of mind expanding thing about that…you know when I was in NYU it was very vogue for Robert Wilson and, you know, Richard Foreman and cats like that to come in, to use actors to workshop a piece and it created anxiety. NYU would make a whole lot of noise about these people being at the school. It was great publicity. There wasn’t any time to do the work, you know it was like, “I’m in the Robert Wilson piece and I walk across the stage and I go like this” And I always hated that. Again you know I push back at everything, Gaby, if something's wrong it's fucking wrong. And it doesn't make good actors and it doesn't create camaraderie or love for the profession and it doesn't create good energy in an actor going forward. I’d rather go into a room and say look, first off if you're not giving 110% with this core company who has come to evolve this, then we can't do our best work. So we are depending on you. What we will give you in return is our time, attention, our mentorship if you want it…and we will never make you feel like an extra. You are part of this.


TR

Yeeeahhh that's great.


KHC

Right? And you can reach out to any of us, you can ask us all the questions cuz we’ve been there. We can sit down, we'll have lunch whatever you need! Because we care about you as actors.


TR

This is like what you were saying in the beginning of our conversation, that there were no mentors.


KHC

That’s right!


TR

And it goes against that idea of “paying your dues” which I hate too.


KHC

Right, so there is this opportunity, to turn on a light bulb in the minds of a whole new generation of actors so that they say, “Oh! This is theater! This is what we're supposed to do, I like this!”


TR

And it also circles back to what you were saying, it's not result oriented. It's getting into the examination, that's really cool! It’s a great model. So that's what The Untitled Othello Project is? It's these two weeks of live streaming of this process?


KHC

No. This is the first residency that we're doing and we are live streaming a table read basically. They asked what do we do in the beginning and I said well if this was a traditional production, we would sit down at the table for maybe three, you know, three fucking days right?? To unpack Hamlet


TR

yeah no big deal…


KHC

And you recycle your Hamlet, make money and off you go. I said we need the protraction of time. Time is everything in this process right? Having the time and the leisure to go deep to talk about something until it's talked out. I can see a two week table read, I can see us sitting there doing a close reading of this text for two weeks or two months and expanding the table to anybody who wants to come and sit at it. You have English students? Bring em. Performance students? Bring em. If you have students with shit to say? Bring em. Because my actors are very eager to hear what they have to say. And they get to see these actors in process and really digging deep. Nothing's off the table, no pun intended. If we're going to talk about Othello and all the toxicity in Othello? There's no nice way to do that. Diplomacy is not allowed here.


TR And again getting back to the beginning of our conversation, is this a way to kind of tease it away from the gatekeepers?


KHC

Of course it is. I mean that's being done all over the place already to huge pushback. Great vociferous anger and vitriol and obstruction because white America holds on to its narratives. We see it in everything!


TR

Right, we can't even teach history.


KHC

Right, hanging on to the lie you know, “you're not gonna take this away from me”. There’s this community of really brilliant black scholars who are talking back to all of this who can't be refuted. Ayanna Thompson sits on the board of the Royal Shakespeare Company and is scholar in residence at The Public Theatre. She runs the Renaissance Center at Arizona State. She's sort of un-impugnable at this point and that’s some scary shit to the old guard scholars because this was theirs and now it’s not. I mean my needs are slightly different because at the end of the day I'm about theatre. Yeah it’s a racially charged play and we gotta get to the bottom of that, but I’m about making a better piece of theatre. Othello, I think, can be an absolutely astounding, riveting, mind-blowing piece of theatre that you’ll never forget but it requires doing this work.


TR

Great, now that I understand what The Untitled Othello Project is, I will spread the word far and wide!


KHC

Doesn’t cost anything to take a look! A table read can run the gamut from spates of extreme boredom to the most incendiary amazing conversation.


TR

And it should, it’s time to look at Shakespeare through a different lens. This was a great conversation and challenging. These are important conversations about all of these stories being told and resurfaced.


KHC

I was reluctant but needed to be said. Are we choosing plays because they are money makers or because they are vital?




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