WHO’S A BUSY BOY? ACTOR-PLAYWRIGHT COLMAN DOMINGO
Mark Kennedy, Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — Colman Domingo is finishing a new play that he also stars in. That might be enough work for some. But not Colman Domingo.
He can be seen in Spike Lee’s “Red Hook Summer,” and next month he will be in Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s “Lincoln” with Daniel Day-Lewis. There’s also the comedy “HairBrained” with Brendan Fraser. And he just directed two one-man stage shows.
Next year, he’ll appear in Lee Daniels’ film “The Butler” featuring Forest Whitaker, Robin Williams and Alan Rickman. There’s also “42″ with Harrison Ford and “Lucky Dog” with Paul Rudd. In January, he’ll be in Hong Kong filming the action flick “400 Boys” with Bingbing Li and Spanish actress Maria Valverde.
How does Domingo do all this?
“I do all this with a lot of vitamin B-12,” the actor and writer says, laughing. “And a prayer — and ginkgo biloba.”
Domingo, the Tony Award-nominated star of “Passing Strange” and “The Scottsboro Boys,” is putting the final touches on his play “Wild With Happy,” which opens Oct. 9 at The Public Theater.
Touching on religion and faith, the four-person play is a comedy of manners that centers on an actor whose mother dies, leaving him with the question of what to do with her remains.
It’s a deeply personal piece for an emerging playwright who also wrote the solo play “A Boy and His Soul.” Domingo, 42, suffered twin losses in 2006 when his stepfather died on Valentine’s Day and his mother died on the Feast of St. Valentine’s on July 15.
Though heartbroken, the Philadelphia native thought there were lessons in his grief. “Maybe what I’m trying to do is heal others,” he says. “I think what we’re trying to do in theater is heal someone.”
The Associated Press managed to corner Domingo for a few minutes to ask him about the new work, his previous jobs before he became so sought-after and how he juggles it all.
AP: Your mother’s death inspired this work. How did you get past the sadness to create art?
Domingo: I realized that humor was the way to move forward. I can’t fall apart every time I mention that my mother’s gone. I actually laugh about stories or things or situations. Of course there’s a wound that will never be patched up, but I approach it with humor. Of course, I don’t overlook it and go straight for the humor, but I think we have to have humor to move forward.
AP: What’s it like writing dialogue for yourself? Do you take it easy on your character?
Domingo: No! I’m stumbling over my own lines. I get line notes on stuff that I wrote! It’s hard because all of a sudden I have to switch and think, ‘How do I turn that dialogue into action for an actor?’ And sometimes, because I am the playwright, I can actually change it and go, ‘It comes out of my mouth better this way.’
AP: Before you made a living doing this, one of your part-time jobs was as a late-night bartender. What other jobs have you had?
Domingo: I still take head shots. I’m a head-shot photographer. I have people come to my apartment and I take their head shots. I still love to do it. That’s what I was doing part time in between jobs. I thought, ‘I’m good with a camera and people need head shots and I’ll always make it very affordable.’ I always thought, ‘How much are they charging? No, they shouldn’t be charging that — it’s digital. C’mon, I’ll do it for half that.’ I’ve also been a baker’s assistant. I did telemarketing. I’ve had a lot of crappy jobs. I also had great jobs, too, like being an after-school program teacher in San Francisco. It was great.
AP: You played three characters in “Passing Strange” and 11 in “A Boy and His Soul.” How many this time?
Domingo: One and a half. I play one and a half! He’s not really a full character — he’s more like a half of a character. I know that sounds weird. I’ll just say that.
AP: Do you ever sleep?
Domingo: It’s funny. I find that I get enough sleep. I have time to go to the gym. I can even go for a walk. All the other time, I’m doing things that excite me so much that I’m just doing it full-out. When you’re doing exactly what you want to do, it’s not tiring. You’ve been planting these seeds and finally you have a full garden in bloom, you’re like, ‘Oh, I just want to smell the flowers and play among the flowers all day.’ That’s what I’m doing. I’m playing among the flowers.
Colman Domingo: Fall Guy
BY AARON HICKLIN
With a new stage play and several high-profile movies, Colman Domingo has the season sewn up.
Photography by Miranda Penn Turin
Colman Domingo recalls watching Eight Is Enough as a kid and thinking, I could do that. Then, he was the kid with a lisp who got picked on at school for wearing his sister’s pink Pumas.
“I got teased for everything,” he says. But if the bullying took a toll, it doesn’t show — Domingo is that rare creature, the well-adjusted actor who exhibits neither ego nor neediness, perhaps because he comes from a family he describes as the Waltons of West Philadelphia.
If Eight Is Enough was Domingo’s first eureka moment, his second came at age 19, when he was studying journalism at Temple University in Philly. “I took an elective in acting, and one day my teacher called me over and said, ‘Hey, Colman, I really hope you examine theater as a career for yourself; I think you have a gift.’ ”
Domingo — whose slate of fall projects ranges from movies with Steven Spielberg and Lee Daniels to his new one-man play, Wild With Happy, at New York’s Public Theater — smiles at the memory. “It was the first time in my life that someone had suggested I had a gift in anything,” he says. “Since then, everything I’ve learned has been hands-on, whether it’s working in the circus or doing Shakespeare.”
Although his career has been a straight shot almost from the start — he earned handsome reviews for Passing Strange and scored a Tony nomination for his role in The Scottsboro Boys — Domingo started writing his own plays in response to a dearth of roles that spoke to him. “I realized I would always play Mercutio, not Romeo,” he says. “I wasn’t being cast in roles that felt truly three-dimensional, written from the African-American point of view.”
Domingo describes Wild With Happy, his third full-length play, as a “dark comedy about death and fairy tales,” in which a 40-year-old man is forced to deal with the loss of his mother. The result is a spiky story of descent and redemption, something of a theme for the writer-actor, whose last play, A Boy and His Soul, explored the way in which music can be a catalyst for change. “I was examining a lot of mother-son relationships — not only mine but also among my friends — and taking bits of my own story and fictionalizing it,” he says.
Having lost his own mother and stepfather, both of whom died within six months of each other in 2006, he’s well placed to understand the process of bereavement. He tears up as he recalls his mother’s visit to San Francisco shortly after he came out to her at the age of 22. The two walked the Castro together and ended up drinking in a gay bar. The experience helped suture a growing distance with his family. “I was beginning to withdraw because I had so many secrets,” he says. “That was part of the impetus to come out — that bond was too important to me.”
He told his older brother — “a typical type-A male, did karate, lusted after women” — outside a strip club where they were celebrating his 22nd birthday. “He just said, ‘Really, you are?’ and I said, ‘Yeah.’ I was nervous and breathing heavily, and he just said, ‘I don’t care, I love you anyway,’ and hugged me.” When his sister found out, she berated him for not coming out to her first. Today, Domingo is engaged to a partner of seven years — they met after locking eyes outside a Walgreens in Berkeley, Calif.
Domingo also has a role in Spike Lee’s latest ensemble movie, Red Hook Summer, and a small part in Spielberg’s Lincoln, which opens in December. Ticking off his projects one by one, he quotes a friend who described him as the kind of actor who slips in through a side door or window when they’re least expected. “I’ve been coming through lots of side doors and windows for years,” he says. “Now I’m coming through the front door.”
Colman Domingo, A Broadway Star, Comes Back Home
By Sandi Smith
Colman Domingo could have been like one of the characters he played in “Passing Strange,” Mr. Franklin – a gentleman who keeps part of himself in shadow in order to spare himself pain and conform to the world’s expectations.
Instead, spurred on by a love-filled upbringing in West Philadelphia, he has chosen to live fully as himself, exploring – and expressing – all the multifaceted reality of his own identity, not to mention those who shaped him and the people he encounters in the world. He tackles all of those all by himself in his solo play “A Boy and His Soul.” Now Domingo, who has won critical acclaim for his ability to portray a wide variety of fully-fleshed-out characters, is bringing his autobiographical play to the city that shaped him.
The Brothers’ Network Inc., a Philadelphia-based nonprofit racial justice organization of diverse African-American men, will serve as executive producer for Domingo’s homecoming. “We are thrilled to bring this powerful black male voice to the stage,” said Gregory Walker, managing director of The Brothers’ Network.”This amazing work demonstrates our lives at the intersections of race, gender, class and sexuality.”
Domingo wrote “A Boy and His Soul” as part of his chosen mission to enlighten audiences about the complexity of African-American existence. “I can add voices from our community that are not per se audible,” he said of the characters he created and portrays in his plays. “We as African-American men are so narrowly portrayed on stage and TV, and it’s important for myself and other African-American artists to tell these stories.
“I choose to tell the stories that I tell because I find that every time I see African-American male characters, they’re distilled and absorbed into stereotypes – they’re oversexualized, or they’re gangsters, or they’ve become caricatures of Cosby, the New Negro.”
Through both the characters he has portrayed in works such as “Passing Strange” and “The Scottsboro Boys” and the ones he introduces and portrays in “A Boy and His Soul,” Domingo seeks to shatter those boundaries that have confined the presentation of the African-American self – male especially, but female as well. “My sister Avery,” one of the 11 different people he portrays in his play, ” is a compilation of many different women – West Philly ghetto princesses with a lot of attitude, a lot of heart, and a lot of sass,” he said. “I wanted to give her character a place on stage so they wouldn’t be marginalized, to see what makes them tick.”
One by one, or in groups, Domingo brings the diversity of characters in his own upbringing to life in the show. “There’s my blue-collar stepfather, Clarence. There’s my mother, who for many years was a homemaker. I play myself from a 6-year-old to now, an African-American gay man.”
The thread that ties together all these characters is love. “I thought it was important to portray a family like the one I grew up in that was surrounded by so much love. I think that is surprising in the portrayal of an inner-city black family.”
And underneath it all is soul music, the soundtrack of not only his own life but that of an entire generation of African-Americans. “One of the messages delivered in soul music is faith in life, in how you find your way,” he said. “I don’t know anyone who hates music or who doesn’t have a favorite song, and there’s a reason why.”
Finding one’s identity and changing for the better are subjects that have animated Domingo throughout his career. Those subjects were the meat of “Passsing Strange” and they come to the fore again in Domingo’s own play. He is especially drawn to African-American male characters who he considers overlooked, including African-American gay men. “I realized as I came to write [this play] that just as August Wilson focused on Pittsburgh and Woody Allen focused on Upper West Side Jews, I am intersted in my protagonists being African-American gay males – but fully fleshed out, so we can see a full human being, not someone who is there for comic relief or who is oversexualized,” he said.
And even though he no longer lives here, Philadelphia informs his work and his characters. “Everywhere I have gone, I claim West Philly,” he said. “People say to me, ‘You don’t sound like you are from West Philly,’ but everything I do is West Philly. Growing up in a working-class community taught me a lot about how to survive, and I am proud to represent West Philly.”
He will represent it again in his next project, a play currently in development called “Wild With Happy.” The play, which is partly set in Philadelphia, is a satire on the American way of death – and Disney World. Rodrigo anticipates the show will open next year.
Rodrigo said it had been his desire to bring his show to his hometown from the start. “The full show has a lot to do with lighting and set design, but I wanted to do something simpler, something stripped down,” he said. “It works, and the music has become even more satisfying,” he said. “It is my homecoming. And it is sharing the things that make my home special.”
Heartfelt Loss Pervades His Triumphs
By CELIA McGEE
IN the last scene of the Spike Lee movie of “Passing Strange,” which captures a curtain call for the musical, Colman Domingo is crying. This tall, sculptured, vamp-ready actor — who during each performance had played the flamboyant, stoic choir director Franklin Jones, the Germanic radical Joop and the Berlin performance artist Mr. Venus — has tears streaming down his face.
Those tears, he said, were for the closing of a show that had practically been his daily routine for almost two years, but they were also for much else. Some months before Mr. Domingo first auditioned for “Passing Strange,” his stepfather had died, and his mother died the day after the tryout. “In the beginning,” he said, “I was so broken.”
Stew and Heidi Rodewald, the co-creators of “Passing Strange,” took the unusual step of giving Mr. Domingo a stretch of two weeks between his audition and the callback that cemented his casting, he said, “so I could go home and bury my mother.”
But what they didn’t know was that while performing those three extravagantly different characters in a cast that won an Obie for its ensemble work, Mr. Domingo, 39, was also going to attempt to rework his grief into celebration, in an artistic endeavor begun several years before. Alone and struggling in New York, missing his family — his parents, who had recently moved to Virginia, and his siblings and relatives back home in the crumbling West Philadelphia neighborhood where he grew up — he started an autobiographical solo play. Called “A Boy and His Soul,” its dialogue is interwoven with a highly personal sound track of the soul music with which he came of age. The show, starring Mr. Domingo, in previews this week and opening Sept. 24 at the Vineyard Theater, has no stage directions for a teary curtain call. If it did, cue Smokey Robinson singing “The Tracks of My Tears.”
Over the span of “Passing” Mr. Domingo “was always the firecracker, the motor at the table, and that anchor in the company in terms of how I related to my writing,” Stew said. “But he came to the project with a profound loss.”
“My mother,” Mr. Domingo said, “was the love of my life.”
Not far behind, though, would be the theater, where, having made his name primarily in the Bay Area as a performer and director, he has now started to register large on the East Coast. He starred in Athol Fugard’s “Coming Home” at the Long Wharf Theater in February, a production the artistic director, Gordon Edelstein, next wants to bring to New York; he has been involved with the coming Kander and Ebb musical “The Scottsboro Boys”; he recently directed a workshop of Vickie Ramirez’s “Smoke”; he is on the faculty of the National Theater Institute; and cable viewers can catch him on “The Big Gay Sketch Show,” produced by Rosie O’Donnell.
“His range is amazing,” Mr. Lee said. “How can you get three more different characters than he plays in “Passing Strange”?
Mr. Domingo raises the total in “A Boy and His Soul.” He plays 11, each informed by soul music numbers that came through the speakers of his parents’ hi-fi console, over the airwaves of WDAS-FM in Philadelphia or off the tape players at teenage parties he said he very awkwardly attended. And at a crucial age came his first exposure — multidimensionally recreated by Mr. Domingo acting, singing and dancing as his nerdy 9-year-old self — to the “incandescent transplendence,” as he calls it in the play, of Earth Wind and Fire “in shimmering skintight drag,” in concert in 1978 at Fairmont Park.
“I’m not usually a fan of solo shows,” said Douglas Aibel, the Vineyard’s artistic director, “but Colman’s writing and that commanding stage presence combine with the remarkable way the music he uses — for exploring and evoking an era — can bring a lot of different generations and people together in an audience.”
An excellent term for this, Mr. Domingo said, is “soul” itself — “which came straight out of church and the idea of getting in touch with your soul, your humanity.”
Mr. Domingo’s entwining of story, music and dance, unlike the artifice of jukebox musicals, strikes the play’s director, Tony Kelly, as “the adorable genius of what Colman is doing,” he said. “He has at least two brains going up there. He’ s full-on acting at the same time as he’s quite aware of where the songs are, and conscious of what phrase he’s on in both his speaking and the singing.”
Yet Mr. Domingo had a speech impediment as a child: “My mother sent me to speech classes, but the other kids still teased me. I was shy. I stooped. Instead of talking, I kept journals. That’s where my love of words comes from. I majored in journalism,” at Temple University, where he planned “to go to war-torn places and document them.”
He took an acting class as an elective. “The teacher told me I had a gift. No one said that to me before.” He went West to give professional acting a try.
College was also where he came out as gay. In “A Boy and His Soul” the humorous yet accepting opinions his family expresses about certain soul-music stars are what “give me glimmers that they would accept me too,” Mr. Domingo said.
One of the final shots in Mr. Lee’s movie shows Mr. Domingo looking upward as the cast reprises the song “It’s Alright.”
“I was looking up at my mom and my stepdad,” he said. “That was for them.”
A Boy and His Soul
Review by Sam Theilman
You can barely hear Colman Domingo over his shirt — a skintight, pastel plaid number at which he plucks while he explains his love of thrift stores. “You can’t keep me out of the motherfuckers,” he crows, striking his second pose in one sentence. Shirt and show are a little thin, but the performance underneath both is so engaging that the 85-minute memory play always fits nicely, no matter how worn the coming-of-age material. Backed by a terrific soundtrack, Domingo brings the same frantic energy to “A Boy and His Soul” that made his “Passing Strange” performance so much fun.
Limbs flying, baritone rumbling, eyes flashing, the performer waxes eloquent on the subject of soul music. “I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid I had no idea what ‘You Sweet Sticky Thing’ was all about,” he admits. “Now I know. Kinda!” Domingo snarls that last word, grinning into it as he bites it off. It’s this exact, unquenchable impulse to tie a bow around even the smallest reminiscence that frequently elevates “A Boy and His Soul” above several seasons’ worth of similar one-man bioplays.
Armed, after five years of development, with a whittled-down bunch of favorite memories, Domingo wants to make sure we appreciate each moment as much as the last, from his parents’ fading health to his love of the Stylistics. He makes that appreciation easy enough, dancing with incredible energy while a dozen songs play in the background, and mining his middle-class Philly childhood for its best and funniest bits.
When Domingo really gets down to business, though, he finds more nuanced moments that underscore his range as an actor. Everybody has seen a performer play his relatives during his coming-out story, but the moment in which Domingo remembers telling his brother Rick (played as an overweening macho crotch-grabber) he’s gay is unexpectedly touching. He’s prepared us for Rick to say something cruel to Jay (his youthful alter ego) or maybe just to leave him standing next to the strip club where he’s chosen to out himself. But he hasn’t prepared us for Rick’s nonchalant validation. It’s a nice moment, and not one that gets played often.
Helmer Tony Kelly keeps the action tightly choreographed and allows Domingo to give the show’s trivia — its catalogs of musicians, its odes to disco and the hustle — the attention he clearly believes it deserves. And, yes, there is a disco ball that sprinkles the ’70s across the audience for a significant portion of the show, courtesy of lighting chief Marcus Doshi. Re-creating the house in which Domingo grew up, Rachel Hauck’s set has a nice lived-in feel, and Ken Roberson’s choreography keeps the actor’s dancing from jerking us in and out of his narrative.
Ultimately, “A Boy and His Soul” is a pleasant reminder of what a joy he is to watch, whether telling his own story or someone else’s.
The Philadelphia Inquirer
West Philly in New York
By Laura Hedli
NEW YORK – Colman Domingo was around 35 when his second growth spurt began. He’d already weathered the awkward years of buck teeth and ballet lessons. Now the actor had to figure out a way to say goodbye to his parents and his childhood home at 52d and Chancellor Streets in West Philly.
But rather than letting go, Domingo decided to archive his memories. The result is A Boy and His Soul, a one-man show – equal parts song, dance and storytelling – that captures the energy of the neighborhood, and the pervasiveness of R&B and soul in the 1970s and ’80s. It recently extended its run Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre to Nov. 1.
“I was trying to marry my childhood coming of age and my new coming of age that I’m having now,” said Domingo, 39 and an Obie-winning veteran of the musical Passing Strange. “I feel like I’ve truly come into my adulthood.”
During his 90 minutes of reminiscing, DJ-ing and channeling his mother, stepfather, siblings, and others, he deftly flips through forgotten records in dusty crates, punctuating vignettes (summer nights in the backyard, violin lessons, and inner conflicts about his sexuality) with songs by his favorite artists – Marvin Gaye, Teddy Pendergrass, Gladys Knight and the Pips, James Brown, Aretha Franklin.
A Boy and His Soul includes 11 characters, modeled on Domingo’s family. “I find most of my joy doing character work,” he explains. As an actor, he’s listened closely to his brother’s laugh, scrutinized his sister’s strut. He hopes he’s representing them truthfully in a piece of theater in which “90 percent of the stories are true” and the rest represent dramatic license.
Those who would know say he has. “He hit everyone dead-on,” niece Nashonda Clark says. “Even my friends say, ‘That is exactly like how your mom and uncle act.’ ” Critics have called his performance “blazingly charismatic,” “irresistible” and “astonishing.”
While the play begins and ends in the not-so-distant past, as his parents prepare to sell the house, most of it is set decades ago, at a summer barbecue or a transformative 1978 Earth, Wind & Fire concert in Fairmount Park, or outside the strip club where he came out to his brother. Domingo remembers a West Philadelphia that was genuine and warm, and was mindful of how he portrayed his hometown. “I wanted it to not seem too slick,” he said.
Onstage, random paraphernalia, including a child’s Easy-Bake Oven, an out-of-commission bicycle, and a tacky white-plastic Christmas tree, make for a cluttered-basement set.
Before each performance, he has his stage managers give him a read on the audience so he can gauge how to approach members, how to engage them, figure out whether they’ll be receptive to the audience sing-along of the Stylistics’ “Betcha By Golly Wow.”
“I think my play is constructed as a two-hander – it is between myself and the audience, truly,” he says.
After graduating from Temple with a journalism degree, Domingo left for California, where he did some film and TV work, but concentrated on theater. (He was in Berkeley Rep’s original production of Passing Strange, which later moved to Off-Broadway, then Broadway.)
It was in San Francisco, four years ago, that A Boy and His Soul got its start at a small theater called Thick Description, going on to become the biggest draw in the venue’s 20-year history.
Tony Kelly, Thick Description’s artistic director and producer, said he had been struck by Domingo’s performance in the company’s 1997 production of Oliver Mayer’s Blade to the Heat, as a character who had to lip-sync to Jackie Wilson and James Brown. In 2005, Kelly decided to produce A Boy and His Soul, and he’s been the show’s director ever since.
When Domingo’s parents passed away during the time between the San Francisco inception and the New York version, “my suggestion was to have him not go there,” Kelly says. “But I was such a fool, because he does such a beautiful job with it.”
The Vineyard’s artistic director, Douglas Aibel, became familiar with Domingo’s acting in Passing Strange, and approached him to discuss producing A Boy and His Soul. “I had a sense that he was a special artist beyond interpreting other people’s work,” Aibel says.
Domingo acknowledges that he’s come a long way since, as a nearly broke Temple grad, he made the jump to West Coast living. But he still yearns for a homecoming of sorts.
“It’s always been my hope that, after a New York run of this show, my next city is Philadelphia,” he says. “I’ve never performed in Philadelphia in my entire 17 years as a performer, and I would love to.” He rattles off a list of theatrical organizations – the Philadelphia Theatre Company, Pig Iron, the Arden, the Wilma – where he would be happy to see his work produced.
And “of course,” he adds, while sitting in a Times Square cafe a heartbeat from Broadway, “I have hopes that this could play on a big street with a big name.”
“I just think that people are ready, on a commercial level, for stories like this. I would really like for something like this to exist.”
The Big Gay Sketch Show’s breakout star Colman Domingo talks about Broadway’sThe Scottsboro Boys, spoofing RuPaul, beating Next Fall’s Geoffrey Nauffts, and drinking with Tara Reid.
By Brandon Voss
Much like his blindingly illuminated RuPaul impersonation on Logo’s The Big Gay Sketch Show, which begins its third season April 13, Colman Domingo is enjoying the ever-brightening spotlight. After appearing in the Tony-winning Broadway musicalPassing Strange, he reprised his roles in Spike Lee’s subsequent film adaptation, which was released on DVD in January. Domingo also won a GLAAD Media Award last month for his autobiographical off-Broadway solo show, A Boy and His Soul. The Philadelphia native now stars in The Scottsboro Boys, a controversial John Kander and Fred Ebb musical about a landmark civil rights case, which plays off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre through April 18 and reopens on Broadway next season. Between lunch dates with Mr. Lee and Mr. Kander, Domingo discusses the big responsibilities of being the only black soul on The Big Gay Sketch Show and the only gay soul in just about everything else.
The Advocate: As seen in a preview clip that’s already gone viral, you play RuPaul in aRuPaul’s Drag Race parody from The Big Gay Sketch Show’s new season. That’s very ballsy of you guys to mock another Logo show.
Colman Domingo: RuPaul’s Drag Race is on such a great high, and sometimes it’s nice to spoof one of your own. It’s done with such great humor and love, so we’re honoring it in our own special way. RuPaul is strong and hilarious, but it’s also a fact that he’s over-lit like old-school Joan Crawford, so we wanted to kick that up a bit.
I know that clip’s been teased during RuPaul’s Drag Race commercial breaks, but has Ru definitely seen your impersonation?
I’m sure he’s heard about it, but I’m not sure he’s seen it yet. I assume so.
Well, watch out, because you know you’ll run into him sooner or later.
[Laughs] Yeah, she may cut me.
Your breakout character last season was Maya Angelou, but you probably don’t have to worry about her watching Logo.
Who knows? Maybe some gay friends of hers turned her on to it. I’m sure she’s got a good sense of humor, so Maya would totally get it. My Maya’s going to be making a big splashy return this season.
Which other new characters can we expect from you?
Whoopi Goldberg, Tyra Banks, and Beyoncé. Beyoncé will be battling Svetlana in a dance-off. I’m going to be playing even more women because I’m now the only African-American actor on the show. Erica Ash isn’t on the show anymore, so now I’ll be playing all the black men and women.
What’s it like to be the sole black member of a sketch troupe?
I’m always very conscious of what I’m doing and where the joke is, but our writing team is also very responsible. We spoof, but we also have a great respect for the characters that we portray. I’m not playing any crazy thugs or anything, and it’s all in light fun. Everyone welcomes my perspective, so I’ll absolutely say something if I think a sketch is leaning toward being hateful or offensive. Even as she reads “missed connections” on Craigslist, I want to make sure Maya Angelou’s saying things that are funny but not too vulgar.
And as a bonus, you don’t have to compete with anyone when it’s time for someone to spoof Beyoncé.
Yes, I don’t have to fight anyone for the black characters anymore. Erica Ash and I used to go to the mat! Now I get ’em all. I want to go for the Asian and Latino characters too.
How hands-on was executive producer Rosie O’Donnell this season?
She was even more involved this season when it comes to the sketches that we chose and things like that. We also have a huge list of celebrity folks dropping by this season, so it’s been a lot of fun.
Colman Domingo: Finding My Soul at a Greenwich Village Bar
by Colman Domingo
In January 2004, I blasted music from my iPod between jazz sets at the legendary 55 Bar in the West Village, where I worked as a bartender. I always had some old-school R&B going. When I would take a break after a full night of service on a Tuesday—I had the worst shifts, by the way—I would put on a mix of Gladys Knight, Phyllis Hyman, Luther Vandross, Donny Hathaway, and so many others, and just breathe. Living the life of a struggling artist in New York City! A drag beauty who stumbled out of the Stonewall Inn with bloodshot eyes leaned against the 55 Bar sign, singing along with the Jacksons from start to finish, “I think about the good times.” She smiled through teary eyes and said, “Thank you, I needed that,” and slid on down Christopher Street.
My belief in the power of this music was valid. It healed and revealed. Between sets and during breaks, I would pull out my notebook and write. Being unflappable in my desire to create. I never thought that this writing would take any shape in the form of a play or a musical or a solo —I hated solo shows. And before I started working on Passing Strange three years ago, I had never considered musicals.
One night, my friend Rodney, a homeless gentleman who would help me clean the bar at 4AM in return for a vodka cranberry and a $5 tip, came in feeling a little down. We’d had many conversations about our lives. He was a former schoolteacher in D.C. He had a bad foot, swollen like a football, and other staff members and I encouraged him to seek medical treatment. Rodney loved the old-school that I would play. I would share with him what was going on with me. Struggling as an artist and trying to help my parents out—they were both suffering from life-threatening illnesses back at home.
On this particular night, Rodney and I didn’t speak much. We were both feeling a little down. We just listened to the music as we cleaned and put the chairs up on the tables. Donny Hathaway’s irreverent song “Someday We’ll All Be Free” came on. At one point I realized that we were both singing quietly to ourselves. I turned the music up. We let the music pour in and out of our souls together. Tears fell from my eyes as I watched Rodney sing out, the veins in his neck about to burst. It was the last song on this “On the Go” mix I made. In the silence we kept on riffing with each other. There was something happening. A change. A shift. My mother always told me that when two or more are in prayer together, you can move mountains! I guess we were praying in this music. We were reaching God together with soul music at the 55 Bar at 4:20AM, trying to heal our hearts.
For months after that moment I didn’t seen Rodney. It was a cold winter, and I thought that the unfortunate had befallen my early morning friend. In the spring I was working on and off in between acting jobs. Susie, the Irish lass of a bartender, told me that Rodney had stopped by to say hello and I missed him. She told him when I would be working, and he said he would stop in. When I started my shift at about 9PM, I went outside to write the upcoming band on the blackboard by the door. Who was sitting out there, beaming in a wheelchair? You guessed it!
Rodney looked great! He was in clean clothes and his hair was trimmed. He looked like a teacher! He told me his foot had had to be to cut off, and that is why he was in the wheelchair. He went through a rehab and was off of drugs. He was going to go home to D.C. and stay with his mother for a bit. He smiled with such pride. His gravelly voice was less raspy. I was proud of him. He said, “Thank you, Colman, you are a good friend.” And that was the last time I saw him.
When the bar cleared out, I put on my music and wrote. I think that my new solo show, A Boy and His Soul, got its inspiration from the catharsis I witnessed. In the back of my mind I always believed that Donny Hathaway helped Rodney get to where he needed to get in that moment. At the same time, my parents put our family house up for sale, leaving behind crates and crates of music. I held a reverence to this music. This archive of our lives. I wanted to examine it. Hold it up to the light and wonder where it would carry me. This was a solo journey. This play became the journey of a boy from West Philadelphia, raised in one of the great eras of soul music, searching through the archives of his home and the beat of his heart…in the music.