‘A huge responsibility’
On his first ever visit to London, Colman Domingo can barely contain his excitement. “I went for a run this morning and ended up outside Buckingham Palace,” he gasps. “I don’t know if it’s the sunshine but I think I’m in love.”
Domingo’s whole demeanour oozes child-like enthusiasm, bonhomie and, for want of a better word, love. His award-winning one-man show, A Boy and His Soul, opening next month at the Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn, is an affectionate, self-penned memoir of growing up in Philadelphia in the 1970s and 80s.
According to a New York Times review of the show he is “a blazingly charismatic performer” who sings, dances, impersonates various friends and family members, celebrates his favourite soul artists and reveals the trauma of coming out in a poor, black neighbourhood at a time when being gay was less acceptable than it is now.
“I had no inclination to perform as a kid,” he says. “I was a shy child – I always had my nose in a library book. I didn’t start acting until I went to college. Once I started it seemed to fit like a glove. I felt completely at home on stage. It was the perfect way for me to express myself, even better than writing.”
[pullquote]Other people can write grown up, political plays about the troubles in the world. My plays deal with magic and hope[/pullquote]
He moved from Philadelphia to San Francisco in 1991 after graduating from college and, despite his lack of experience, managed to land a leading role in a play soon after arriving.
“I knew nothing. I didn’t even know what blocking was. My only qualifications to be an actor were that I’m daring and I’m a quick learner. I’ve always learnt by watching what other people do. It’s the same with my writing. I write what I know. Structurally I write in a very undisciplined way.”
Having made his theatrical mark in San Francisco, Domingo moved to New York in the mid-noughties to play a leading role in the rock musical Passing Strange, followed by Billy Flynn in Chicago, and Mr Bones in The Scottsboro Boys, both shows by Kander and Ebb.
He will be reprising Mr Bones, for which he received a Tony nomination in 2011, when The Scottsboro Boys opens at the Young Vic in October under the direction of Susan Stroman.
In fact Domingo plays five different characters in the show which concerns the true story of nine young black men wrongfully tried and convicted of rape in Alabama in 1931. The subsequent trials and appeals lasted seven years and divided the nation. A historic piece of legislation, posthumously exonerating the convicted youths, was passed earlier this year.
“I never knew the story growing up in school because it was evidently shoved under the rug,” says Domingo. “It was too painful and shaming to teach to the next generation, even though it was something our parents and grandparents grew up with. It feels like a huge responsibility to be telling the story now.”
Had he ever experienced any race prejudice personally?
“Only a couple of minor things. I worked in customer services in Macy’s department store when I first arrived in San Francisco, and a woman refused to show me her ID, saying ‘I know what you people do.’ At first I assumed she meant us customer services people, but it wasn’t that. There was a look in her eye that spoke of distrust and disapproval. I was angry because she wasn’t seeing me as an individual, she was looking at my skin and saying she didn’t trust me because of that.”
Working with director Susan Stroman was the best experience of his career to date, he says. “She challenges you to be better than you thought you could be. I was nervous about doing Scottsboro Boys because I’m not a trained dancer and there is a lot of very athletic dancing involved. She said, ‘Trust me, when you’ve finished on this show you’ll be a dancer.’
“Susan is very precise but also open to opinions in the rehearsal room. She gives out homework and keeps an eye on what you’re eating. She’ll walk past you in the cafeteria and you’ll know by her expression whether or not she approves of your food. She wants to make sure you’re taking care of your body because she knows what you need. Nobody gets away with a Big Mac when Susan is around.”
Since the success of A Boy and His Soul, Domingo has conceived another semi-autobiographical show, Wild With Happy, about a 40-year-old gay man trying to come to terms with the sudden death of the mother he adored. Like A Boy, it is unashamedly sentimental and emotionally raw, yet the actor gets away with it because of his irresistible joie de vivre.
“I know I throw it on thick,” he says, grinning from ear to ear. “I have fireworks. I have Cinderella. I’m appealing to everyone’s inner child to get you to that place of hope and imagination. Other people can write grown up, political plays about the troubles in the world. My plays deal with magic and hope.”