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Two views on Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ from the Cleveland Orchestra and Karamu House

Othello web pic.jpg
Twitter / Kabir Bhatia
In "American Moor," Keith Hamilton Cobb (left) wrote about his experiences as a Black actor auditioning for Othello. Limmie Pulliam is the lead in the Cleveland Orchestra's production of Verdi's "Otello."

Two separate productions in Cleveland this month take on different aspects of Shakespeare’s “Othello.” Karamu House presents the play “American Moor,” while the Cleveland Orchestra mounts Verdi’s opera “Otello.”

“Othello” – the play – is Shakespeare's tragedy about a Moorish general who is driven by jealousy into madness. It’s the Bard’s only leading role for an actor of color, although it’s been played in blackface far too often, such as by Orson Welles in his 1951 film adaptation.

Two Black performers central to both productions shared their thoughts on everything from Shakespeare to racial biases to cultural influences with Ideastream Public Media.

Keith Hamilton Cobb

While actor Keith Hamilton Cobb has never played the lead, he does love Shakespeare. The New York native has been a familiar presence on television for decades, playing in “All My Children,” “The Young and the Restless,” “Andromeda” and the new reboot of “Law & Order.”

For the stage, he wrote “American Moor” about what it's like as a Black man to audition for the role of Othello before an arrogant, white director.

“What has been inherent, because we live in America, is racial bias and perception of Black manhood and maleness through a controlling, policing white lens,” Cobb said. “We could sit here and try and deny it, but it's just not so. It has always existed and what I realized was that it was existing within my professional life. Some people would say, ‘Well, it would have been naive for you to think anything else.’ And that's probably true, but it was a realization of mine kind of late in life: There was no disconnecting my life as a Black American male from my life as a Black American male actor.”

The intersection of those worlds is what “American Moor” is about.

“[It’s] the experience of this African-American male auditioning for the role of Othello,” he explained. “[He’s] the right age, the right experience, having had a lifetime to consider it, and still having to answer to a white male half his age about how best to perform the role. In the course of a five-minute audition, he has an hour and a half inner monologue where all that stuff is explored.”

Cobb said it’s fitting that the production is at Karamu House, the oldest African American theater in the country. The award-winning play ran off-Broadway in 2019, but then had to wait for further performances due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The pandemic just destroyed everybody’s progression and trajectory,” he said. “We played Cherry Lane, off-Broadway. We had a couple of really exciting experiences in Boston with the Boston Center for the Arts and ArtsEmerson. We were in London at Shakespeare's Globe in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, a Jacobean replica theater adjacent to the actual Globe Theatre.”

Cobb points out that a lot has changed, socially, since then, but the situation in “American Moor” could still exist today.

“If [a] director is not being that arrogant, is it because he has changed as a human being, or is he just minding what he says?” Cobb said. “If we expand that a little bit, there was a whole lot of knee jerk reacting to George Floyd and the ‘We See You, White American Theater’ treatise that so many theaters reacted to. Everybody wanted to say, ‘We've gotten it. We're woke,’ which is a phrase I think we should lose altogether because it means nothing at this point.”

Cobb said he wonders if enthusiasm behind promoting diversity initiatives and Black plays was simply a way to monetize social change.

“That's the struggle,” he said. “I certainly have a bit of a jaundiced eye I cast on all of this. But what's the alternative? I'm continuing to make my work, and I'm continuing to make theater that I think is relevant and tell the truth.”

While appreciating the timelessness of Shakespeare’s documentation of human behavior, Cobb questioned the value of many quick, American renditions of Shakespeare’s plays.

“All you can ever do is recycle these plays,” he said. “I really do not need to see another ‘Hamlet.’ As wonderful as it is, I don't need to see another one. And my $60 is too much money to gamble on you showing me something new.”

Cobb said he actually prefers the opera based on “Othello,” Verdi’s “Otello,” which the Cleveland Orchestra presents this month.

Limmie Pulliam

Tenor Limmie Pulliam makes his debut with the Cleveland Orchestra thanks to exposure on social media. He’s posted performance clips over the past several years, which were eventually seen — and heard — by Cleveland Orchestra Music Director Franz Welser-Most.

“[He] was pleased with what he heard and offered me the opportunity,” said Pulliam. “It's almost like winning the lottery: to get to [that] call to see if I would be interested. Why they had to call, I don't know, because they should have known the answer would be ‘yes.’”

The Missouri native said online content is leveling the playing field for performers and artists of color.

“Obviously, we still have a long way to go in doing that in this industry,” he said. “Social media — and more recently, the onset of the pandemic — has taken a lot of control out of the hands of the so-called gatekeepers. It's allowed artists to turn their homes, and just about any other location, into a space to create their own programming for live streaming. In a way, that has helped level the playing field a bit, but in actuality we still have quite a way to go. We're going to have to see changes not only on stage, but in the boardrooms and the administrative offices and things of that nature. I hope we'll eventually get there. I think we're moving in the right direction now.”

But Pulliam said it is important to have conversations about race and about the change that needs to happen.

“These are conversations that need to be had,” he said. “If we shy away from having those conversations, then it's just going to take that much longer to reach our goal. We have to be willing to have the difficult conversations, whether it's about race, whether it's about being individuals of size and dealing with size [and] body size issues within the industry, we have to have those difficult conversations in order to progress past them.”

He acknowledges that, were he auditioning for the play instead of the opera, he himself could face issues related to his appearance — but not in the way Keith Hamilton Cobb has.

“I have run into these issues in my career,” he said. “In the beginning, it was somewhat difficult to deal with. But I've grown to really love myself as I am. And in doing that, I believe I've been able to take control of the narrative and actually initiate these discussions. Instead of waiting for someone else to bring it up as a source of concern, I approach it head on [and say], ‘If this is going to be an issue, we need to discuss it now. I don't want to have this come back two weeks later and say, ‘We have an issue.’”

The long road to having those conversations began in Missouri, in a small rural town midway between Memphis and St. Louis. Pulliam first found his calling while singing in church and then joined the school choir.

Although he’d never had much experience with classical music, his high school choir director heard something in his voice and presented him with a piece of sheet music and a cassette tape of Luciano Pavarotti.

“[She] asked if I would attempt to learn an aria,” he said. “I took the items home and listened and learned them, came back and sang the aria for her, but I kept the cassette tape. I began to listen to the other things that were on the tape. The operatic sounds began to intrigue me, so I began looking for other sources [such as] Live from Lincoln Center and Metropolitan Opera programs. In doing that, I discovered there were opera singers who looked like me: Leontyne Price, Grace Bumbry, Jessye Norman, Simon Estes and George Shirley. It made me begin to think that this could be a possible career for myself. Eventually, I auditioned for Oberlin and was accepted and studied there under the late, great pedagogue Richard Miller, which was a great honor.”

That’s where Pulliam’s Northeast Ohio connections began. He previously worked with Cleveland Opera’s education program, performing “Carmen” for Cleveland schools. Now he is performing at Severance.

“I remember going to Severance Hall to come to see Frederica von Stade with the Cleveland Orchestra, and it was such a wonderful, magical experience to walk into this hall and just feel the energy that was buzzing in the room. I also had the opportunity to perform there as a college student when the Oakland College Choir joined the Cleveland Orchestra for the performance of Mahler’s 8th Symphony with Robert Shaw. I mean, it just doesn't get much better than Severance Hall.”

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.