I’ve held out on reading American Moor by Keith Hamilton Cobb, hoping to catch it live. The show had toured extensively, and I planned to see it if it ever landed somewhere in driving range. With the pandemic and the publication of the text as a paperback, I decided to read it on the page. It’s the first play I’ve read outside of Shakespeare since college.
Keith Hamilton Cobb plays a Black actor auditioning for the role of Othello. He’s the only person to appear on the stage, while the voice of a director can be heard when they interact with each other. Cobb speaks to the audience and director, often separately. He goes through his prepared monologue as he feels appropriate, and finds disagreement with a director who thinks he knows better. Tension is exposed as Cobb tells the audience what he thinks and feels in these situations where one plays nice to get at an opportunity. In pushing back against the director, the actor states, “Nobody ever plays the devil’s advocate. They play their own advocate, and hide behind that stupid idiom to avoid having to take responsibility for it” (30).
There’s pages of raw outpouring of emotion from the actor. Context, historical analysis, and personal insight all contribute to Cobb’s message on race and Shakespeare’s Othello. “Ya see, for you, at best, Othello is like your little exercise in understanding. You think you get him… you can commiserate, you have empathy for his condition. No you do not… there is nothing more infuriating that white folks actin’ like they know your story well enough to tell it without your help” (40-41).
This read left me with a lot to think about. Cobb’s insight spells out clearly, effectively, and with anger the weight of racism in artistic spaces. Every point hits hard, and the overall feeling I took away was one of contemplation. I can’t recommend this enough. American Moor by Keith Hamilton Cobb is a powerful text that has brought me to reflect upon my own biases.
What’s the deal with the wooden dagger? It doesn’t appear anywhere in the text, so why is it in the title? What does it have to do with the story? The answer has to do with medieval theatre and use of props in character development. Characters in the medieval morality plays were often named for traits they were meant to embody. The vice figure was one of comic relief, meant to tempt and bring folly towards characters of virtue or other such positive traits. The vice often turns to the audience, and delivers lines by breaking the fourth wall. This brings about an inclusion so that the audience is in on the misdeeds.
They would carry a wooden dagger on stage. This prop was meant as a direct gesture to inform the audience, ‘Hey! I’m the villain.’ By the Renaissance, Shakespeare had dropped the prop, but perfected the role of vice in Richard III and Iago of Othello. These characters turned to the audience, told them of the intent, and then turned back to the story world with their malice in practice. A contemporary version of this that has resonated with audiences would be comic book antihero Deadpool, or average politician Frank Underwood in House of Cards.
That’s my aim with Beatrix. She’s an antihero of sorts, who wants to fill you in on her thoughts and intent as she does whatever her wretched heart desires. The book consists of five stories that span over the course of her life, and plays with time. It’s framed with bits of the thriller, cultural satire, and dysfunctional family drama.
That’s the deal with the wooden dagger. I framed this character after the many vices I’ve come across, and hope to turn you off to humanity with her antics. If you’re still with me, give it a shot!
As always, thank you for your time.
Strange to think that in my time as an English major I never read The Tempest, or Margaret Atwood. I have The Lord Denney’s Players to thank for the recent exposure. The theatre company is of the Ohio State Department of English, and their emphasis is on the Renaissance. With this production they’ve chosen to put on The Tempest. In order to familiarize myself with the text and story I read Shakespeare’s work, an article by Stephen Greenblatt, and Margaret Atwood’s retelling in a contemporary prison, Hag-Seed. All of which were wonderful texts (as I’ll get to Hag-Seed in a moment), but that breathing entity of theatre was something fantastic to behold.
I started reading Hag-Seed a day or two following my completion of The Tempest. Atwood bridged the gap, from text to stage. Her novel begins with a Prospero figure, and his work as a Shakespearian theatre producer. Every piece is there; political betrayal, exile, revenge, and forgiveness as prompted by the figure of Ariel, an inmate known only as 8Handz.
But the best qualities of a retelling are in what makes it new. Long has the topic of prisons been applied to conversations on The Tempest, but Atwood has sculpted a narrative of her own, with the actual play as the underlying plot point. Freakin’ meta, man… but it gets at some parallels that prove Atwood is a master of her craft.
Most of the novel seems grounded in reality, but there are moments that are just fantastic. Felix (the figure for Prospero) getting away with his crazed hostage taking revenge plot is too good to be real, but such is the stuff of great fiction, and such is Shakespeare’s text. If you’re really looking for an over the top reworking of Shakespeare check out South Park, season five, episode four: Scott Tenorman Must Die. That mess recreates Titus Andronicus, and it’s dark. Sorry, that got off subject.
I’m new to the Margaret Atwood fan club, but I’m looking forward to reading more of her work. Aside from The Handmaid’s Tale, what else of hers should be at the top of my list?