Colman Domingo: Fall Guy

9.5.2012

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.”

Wild With Happy opens at The Public in New York City October 9.

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