Keith Hamilton Cobb is a graduate of New York University Tisch School of the Arts. He attended Circle in the Square Theatre School and Playwrights Horizons Theater School. Here, Cobb discusses his new play, American Moor, Shakespeare and gifts.
Why did you decide on acting?
Acting is just one of many forms of creative expression. As artists, we are born with one set of creative proclivities, or many. We may choose which mode of expression we are going to most actively cultivate, but the artistic temperament is a thing of the spirit and one with incarnating as the individual we are. This mode of expression just happened to be the most dominant in me. I have others that I use and actualize in my creative life. But the life itself, the artist’s life, was given to me. I made no choice.
Given the layers of difficulty to maintain success and relevance in the entertainment business, how do you stay motivated?
I stay motivated by realizing that there isn’t anything else for me to do. If it were to come to a choice, I would always have a far greater motivation to be a struggling artist, than to be a comfortable stockbroker. It’s what I do. There is doing it, and then there is dying. I choose to do it despite the sometimes extreme hardship because there is no other choice.
Tell us about your current project, American Moor.
American Moor is a labor of the last two and a half years. It is a play about many things. In its simplest description, it is a play about the experience of the American black male through the metaphor of Shakespeare’s character, Othello. However, this is reductive, and the more that I perform this 90-minute piece of theatre, the more I am made aware of the myriad other things that it is about. It is a play about the American discussion on race, or lack of it, and what comes of our inability to have it. It is a play about love, and radical forgiveness. It is a play about the strength of the American actor, and the qualitative decline of our American theatre. It is a play about Shakespeare, who gets to play it, and who doesn’t. Who is the arbiter of good art, and “valuable” modes of creative expression? What is authentic with regard to the portrayal of Shakespeare’s characters? It is a play about the ultimately destructive nature of privileged perspective, and about the experience of every human being who has felt never thoroughly seen, nor heard. American Moor is a play about all of us, as we try to occupy this increasingly limited American space together. It is the most important work that I have written to date, and I am quite proud of it.
What has been your most difficult challenge that you had to face/overcome?
Clearly, the most difficult challenge facing any African American is the challenge of full self-actualization in a culture that is systematically designed to put them at a disadvantage in every conceivable way. It is no different for me.
As an actor, what role would you like to play?
This is always a difficult question to answer. Most of the roles that I would like to play are roles that I would like to have played. They are the Romeos, the Mercutios, the Hamlets that were never granted to me and for which I am now too old. There is still time for some of the middle-aged warrior roles of Shakespeare, Cassius, Brutus, etc… I would like to explore those. Shakespeare, at my age, remains rife with characters to explore. And I love Shakespeare. With regard to contemporary theatre, there is very little being put forth for black men outside of the Wilson canon. Not that there are not plays being written, but very few get produced in venues that would expose them to America in a big way, and many of the few that do are of questionable quality. It bears saying that I am still very much interested in exploring the roles of all complex, dramatic leading men, in all the various forums of television, film, and stage. It’s never so much WHAT roles an actor would particularly like to play, but far more what, if any, he will be allowed to play. Obviously, this is a much bigger discussion.
What was your most challenging role to play and why?
There was no role that I have enacted, that was any more challenging than any other. I applied the same set of skills to all of them and was always generally satisfied with the result. Shakespeare’s characters were a particular challenge when I was a young and new actor simply for my having not yet acquired the skills to act them proficiently. If anything was a challenge more so than anything else it was attempting to portray characters that appeared as guest stars in televised half-hour comedy shows. They were never anything that I ever wanted to do. I did not like the form. The characters existed to be one thing and that was silly. It was always a stretch for me to be goofy for goofy’s sake. This is not to say that I never appreciated the comedy shows that were written well, or the actors that could play them well. And I have no issue with comic characters that are as well drawn in depth and breadth as any dramatic character. Again, it is just that it has not been my good fortune to have been allowed to explore any of those.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to work as an actor?
My standard answer to this question is invariably as follows: If there is anything else in life that you feel you would be just as happy doing, go do that. Except for the very fortunate few, an actors life is hard, fraught with rejection, often economically untenable, and not a whole lot of fun… This life is for those who cannot choose something else. If this is what you must do or die, then jump in with all of your heart and soul and body and show the Universe you mean it. Hone your skills. Learn to be proficient at what you do. After that, believe in yourself. Love yourself above all. And trust in your own perfection. There is no other gift to the world that is you. You are a unique and divine idea, and you will need to hold the truth of that at every audition. It is all that will carry you through.