Colman Domingo Living Large
By Patrick Christiano
Born and raised in Philadelphia Colman Domingo moved to San Francisco at the age of 21 soon after graduating from college, a couple of years after a professor told him “he had a gift for acting,” embarking on a two decade long journey of learning his craft. He played all sorts of roles in theater, film, and television, while watching, learning and reading masters like Stanislavski and Uta Hagen. He eventually made his way to New York and Broadway. And now the LOGO star is an award winning actor riding the crest of a wave, which caught momentum a few years ago with his performance in the acclaimed musical Passing Strange.
The tale about a confused young black artist, with music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, began life at the Public Theater before moving to the Great White Way garnering a slew of awards along the way, including the 2008 Drama Desk award for outstanding musical, an Obie Award for best ensemble, as well best new theatre piece, an Audelco Award for best musical and even a Tony Award. The great Spike Lee astutely turned the musical event into a stunning film with the original cast creating a memorable legacy for prosperity.
Colman followed his success in Passing Strange by writing himself a one man show A Boy and His Soul, which was hailed by the critics and won him much deserved accolades in an extended run Off-Broadway at The Vineyard Theater. The idea occurred to him during a bar tending gig years ago and now A Boy and His Soul has earned him a string of awards including this year’s GLAAD Media Award, along with 2010 Drama Desk and Drama League nominations for outstanding solo performance. And on May 2 for his stellar performance in Boy he won the Lucille Lortel Award over the likes of Judith Ivey, Lynn Redgrave and Anna Devers Smith, quite a heady accomplishment. In between the closing of A Boy and His Soul and winning the Lortel he performed in the new Kander and Ebb musical The Scottsboro Boys, directed by Susan Stroman, which has been nominated for 8 Drama Desk Awards and will be moving to Broadway in the coming season.
I caught up with the talented and charismatic actor for a chat on life and lessons learned in a coffee shop near his apartment in midtown. He had just come from a workshop production of a new musical An Officer and a Gentleman based on the film in which he plays the tough as nails sergeant.
PC: What inspires you?
CD: (A long introspective pause) OK, what inspires me? People… (another thoughtful pause).
PC: Come on Colman, you’re holding back. I see you didn’t want to tell me.
CD: Oh my God! Immediately I think people. I think what inspires me is people with vision. People who have an idea about what the F*** they want. Don’t use that word, but it’s true. It’s true. People who know what they want and have a vision. They can see something that I can’t see, you know, and then they have to bring you up to speed. I think that inspires me. I think love inspires me. That’s going to sound so cheesy, but I think, you know the power of love inspires me, honestly. I am going to sound like such a Pollyanna. (We both laugh)
PC: What do you do to relax?
CD: Oh my God! Lately, I sit on my terrace and I just look out at the sky. And I am blessed to have a terrace right now. So I go to my terrace and I go early in the morning, if I can get up early and look at the sunrise. I do that and it gets me started with my day. And at the end of the night a lot of times I go out there with just my underwear, and I just, you know, breathe and look at the city lights and just take it all in and just, you know, try to relax.
PC: You won a best ensemble Obie Award for “Passing Strange.” How did that feel?
CD: I didn’t know when they invited you, you were actually going to get one. So I took a job. I decided to take this job that was going to pay me five thousand bucks to host an awards show. I was like, oh well, it’s just an award. I wasn’t use to winning awards, so I was hosting The New Now Next Awards that night and I didn’t go there.
PC: What is that?
CD: The New Now Next Awards are the LOGO Awards. It is the pop culture award for the LOGO network. That is actually the award show that introduced Lady Gaga to the world.
PC: Oh wow!
CD: There is a saying that friends of mine say, “Colman, just let people know, ‘Say that ‘I am the one, who introduced Michelle Williams, who introduced Lady Gaga to the world.’ ”
PC: (Hardy laughter at this) But what I really wanted to ask you was about the Lortel Awards, I F*** up. Did you go to the Lortel Awards?
CD: Yes, I did go to the Lortel Awards and when I heard my name called I felt like I went deaf. For a second I felt like I went deaf, because I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
CD: I also didn’t prepare a speech, because I personally felt like that was bad taste. It should be something from your heart and in the moment. And maybe you should take a moment to think about the people that you would like to thank, but the idea, if I had a speech, I don’t know for me personally I didn’t have a speech. So when I heard, the spotlight went on me, and for a moment I went deaf and all I could think was get up those stairs without falling. And Ally Sheedy handed me my award, of all people, and I just felt overwhelmed with appreciation by this New York theater community. Truly, because it has been a long time coming and I felt like….you know finally….
PC: Yes, you have really been embraced. Here you are up against Judith Ivey and Lynn Redgrave and they give it to you…an amazing moment. Awards are really a bit of a popularity contest, so they are saying not only do we appreciate the work, but they are saying we like you, we love you and we think you are talented as well.
CD: Yes, that’s what I mean I felt that people appreciated me. You know because honestly after Passing Strange, truly I knew people appreciated me, but when it comes to acknowledgment like… Charles Isherwood said “I should have been nominated for a Tony,” but you only take things in as much as you can, because it’s crazy everyone has an opinion. But when awards shows are coming around and people are saying you did some of the finest work they have ever seen…
PC: And you did, you were truly marvelous in PASSSING STRAGNE. You created three totally distinct characters and you embodied them with such a sense of truth. It was the first time I ever saw you perform and I thought you were fabulous. I waited at the stage door afterwards to tell you so and I rarely do that.
CD: I remember that and that was so totally sweet.
PC: Who directed ‘Passing Strange’?
CD: Annie Dorsen, yea and that was a beautiful experience.
PC: Did she get you to pull things in and go further?
CD: Yes, she was great. They had an idea of what they wanted, but I don’t want to say this in a pompous sort of way, but I really did create those roles. They let us as actors do our research and fill it in. I did so much research on the German performance artist. I did so much research on images and photography, looking at old performance art and many different forms and we tried billions, I can’t tell you how many ways we tried to figure out who he was. At times, when I was at Berkeley Rep doing the show, he was more of a drag queen, but by the time we got to the public he was more of a dark musician kind of David Lynch-like musician kind of ugly guy with a dark soul. But then when we moved to Broadway, we found this whole other being. It really grew into this other being that was truly his own creation. He grew into the amalgamation of so many things. So I was really happy that they gave me so much room. When I came up with the affixation idea…
PC: Yes, that was fantastic.
CD: I came up with that in one of our last rehearsals. But it was also one of our rehearsals, when I was so frustrated. They weren’t figuring out what they wanted. They knew they wanted it to be raw and they knew they wanted it to be in the moment, but they didn’t want it to look like it was staged. And I just thought what would this character do in this moment to make his point ….to make a point on many levels? Whether audiences would get it or not, maybe people would think ten different things.
PC: And you made it feel so dangerous.
CD: Exactly! And I came up with that and they were like ‘Oh my God!’ We knew that was it, so how can we do this in a safe way and still look raw? And we figured that out.
PC: Amazing! I saw the show three times and I worried for you. I wondered how the hell does he do that?
PC: So in light of all this stuff. You have won all these awards. The Obie Award last year, this year’s GLAAD Award, the LORTEL Award and now you are nominated for the Drama Desk and Drama League awards. What do you do to stay grounded?
CD: I just feel like you take it all in stride. Just know…I don’t let myself…I don’t know, maybe it was the way I was raised. People would always joke, ‘Don’t get a big head now.’ I don’t think I was raised that way. Your work is your work and you do your work and if accolades come, that’s nice, but you don’t want to believe your press. The only thing you do is, you know I went to the Drama Desk la la palazzo last night, and then I went home and I made dinner for Raul and I cleaned my trash can and you just continue to live your life. You talk to your friends. My best friend is Anika Noni Rose. We get on the phone and we talk, while I am eating some soup or something. You just continue to live your life and keep the people around you that are so important. They ground you. You take your work seriously, but it is not just about work for me. It’s about my life, my home, my loved ones. I don’t put all my eggs in one basket.
PC: So you have your home to keep you grounded?
CD: And the love of great friends.
PC: Do you have pets?
CD: No, I don’t have any pets
PC: Do you like dogs?
CD: Yes, I like dogs and I would like to have one, but personally when I could live out in the country or something, because I feel like they need to run.
PC: If you were a dog, what kind of dog would you be?
CD: I would definitely be a chocolate lab, because I think they are very friendly. They always want to lay up on you. They want to hug you and kiss you whenever.
PC: What is your strongest belief?
CD: My strongest belief is in spirit.
CD: In spirit…believing that there are spirits around us helping us that guide us, and Gods and angels.
PC: So you don’t believe in coincidence, you believe in destiny?
CD: I do believe in destiny. I believe that things are set up and things are moving you, and are constantly at work to make things happen. And I think there is a spirit here guiding us, giving us a safe place, protecting us….I hope.
PC: When you are no longer here and it is your time to go, what would you like to be most remembered for?
CD: Oh, Patrick this is such a beautiful question. I would like to be remembered for I think my spirit…I think my laugh…that I have a big hardy laugh, and there are so many messages in it. I think it tells people exactly who I am. It tells people that I am from working class Philadelphia. It tells people that I come from a family that enjoyed laughter that is not afraid to laugh. It is big. It is raucous. It’s crazy. It is silly and I think there is a lot of humanity in my laugh. I think I would like to be remembered for my laugh, yea.