BWW Interviews: WILD WITH HAPPY Director Robert O'Hara

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Obie-winning director Robert O'Hara will direct The Public Theater's WILD WITH HAPPY by Colman Domingo. The play explores the surreal, bizarre, and outrageous comedy that lies in dealing with death and healing as a young man named Gil plans to scatter his mother's ashes in the place where she was the most happy.

O'Hara's credits include The Public: Insurrection: Holding History; The Brother/Sister Plays (Part 2), Off-Broadway and regional; In The Continuum, Eclipsed, Antebellum, A Raisin In the Sun, A Life in the Theater, Man in Love, BootyCandy. O'Hara wrote and directed the 2011 film, The Inheritance. He is also the recipient of the Obie, Helen Hayes, NAACP and Oppenheimer Awards. The director chatted with BWW about the upcoming production of WILD WITH HAPPY, a play which takes on a unique yet truly universal subject matter.

Can you tell us a little about the show?

Wild With Happy is a play about a 40-year-old man whose mother has passed away, and it's about what happens when he decides to cremate her body, really the conflict that arises within himself and his family over that decision.

So, would you describe it as a dark comedy?

I would not describe it as a dark comedy, I would describe it as a comedy with dark edges. Because it's really zany and really crazy and outrageous but it's not dark in the same way there's this heavy duty darkness that's over it. I think it's almost a mixture of slapstick and Saturday Night Live and high Drawing Room comedy. It's a comedy about death so I guess it is dark in that way.

But definitely leans more toward the humor than the darkness.

Exactly. I mean it's very powerful and it's a very touching and lovable story, but there is no small amount of zaniness in this play.

Colman Domingo, who is so talented, wrote the play. Is there an interesting dynamic that develops when the playwright is also acting in the show?

Well, one of the plays I directed a few seasons ago was 'In the Continuum', with Nikkole Salter and Danai Gurira and those were two actors who were also playwrights. And I'm a director and a writer so I think I'm used to the sort of hyphenate of the business. And so it is kind of exciting because I know Colman as an actor, I know him as a friend and when he asked me to become involved in the project I said, 'I'm sure it's going to be out of control,' because Colman and myself in the same room is just out of control! And I knew it was going to be very exciting to see what he had done because his other two plays were basically one man shows and this was actually a multi-character play. And it was new to him in terms of writing a multi-character play, so I was very, very excited. I think of Colman as this sort of fool in the most wonderful sense of the word. That he can actually be completely foolish and come off standing on his feet. That's what's wonderful about watching him, that he actually does not care about failing and failing big on stage in order to find something that truly is winning.

Does he mostly keep his acting hat on or does he make suggestions here and there?

I think it's because we were friends before this and he sort of respects me and he sort of asked me to do it. It wasn't like he decided to write a play and act in it and then find a director who would agree to it. He picked me and I think one of the reasons was because I knew how to allow him to be both an actor and a writer and to encourage both. So yes, he will be acting and I will ask his opinion of certain things, and he will come up to me and say his opinion about certain things as a writer. He's very respectful of the other actors. And he is actually the straight man in the play. A lot of the other characters are really the people who are out of control, which is sort of great - to have someone who I know to be completely crazy and outrageous to be playing the straight character in this comedy.

Do you feel the play has relevance to today's times?

There are a few reasons I think this play has relevance. At some point, all of us will have to deal with death of a parent or a relative or a loved one and the madness it involves. And it is an absolute business now, death, and I think it has been for some time. But the idea of the New York artist or the sort of up and comer, to have to go back to his hometown and deal with not only the death of his mother but the craziness of his family, and the business side of death, is very, very relevant to now, especially in these economic times. Also, I think that people don't usually see plays with black protagonists dealing with this type of subject matter. The subject matter usually deals with race and this play does not traffic in that situation. It definitely sort of puts stereotypes on its head, but it's not about the racial issues surrounding death.

So it's very universal.

Completely and totally universal. And we've performed it and done workshops of it with all different types of audiences and they all get it. And it just all comes down to the sense of loss. You know we started rehearsals the day before the Anniversary of 9/11 and there was something about how we treat loss and how we talk about loss. And how there is some laughter that comes out of the pain of loss. And I think that's what this play does. It's about, how do we laugh in the face of pain, is there joy inside the pain, in the horror of it all.

Which is a message we could all use these days.

Absolutely. Especially when you have people shooting up the place and killing, the randomness of it - how do we maintain our sanity inside of that.

The Public Theater recently underwent a huge revitalization project.

Yes - which is requiring us to rehearse outside of The Public - which is quite interesting. Their building our set in the theater, and that's sort of exciting because we'll walk over to the theater sometimes and see the set being built inside the theater. Usually you build a set and you put it in the theater. The Public is going to be doing an amazing amount of shows this year and we are the first show to open so we have been rehearsing a little bit longer, so we are outside, a couple of blocks away in a rehearsal space. We walk back and forth, and it's actually kind of fun because every time you go back, you see something new.

Do you think the fact that you will be the inaugural production in these beautiful new surroundings will add to the energy of the show?

Oh absolutely! It's like if you have the money to build your own house and every now and then you kind of check in and go, 'is the bathroom in the right location?' 'is the bedroom big enough?' Every time we go, there's always something new that we find - it's like getting ready to go into a new home. So we're all very excited about that.

As a director, I'm sure you had an initial vision of the play. What is that process like to have to adapt and change that vision as you go through rehearsals?

Well you know I actually think that the vision is about adapting and changing. And I always think that I can only be as good as the people I have around me and the people in the show. They make me better. So there's no vision that I've had that is so solidified before I walk into the room. It's all very organic for me. I think some directors come in and they're like, 'do what I've been dreaming about for the last three months." I don't take the script home with me. I work in the moment and I expect my collaborators to do the same thing. I've always thought the process only works if the vision changes because we are all supporting something and no one services their own ideas. And Colman is that way too. He knows that at any given moment I will go, 'something that's been working for the last year just isn't working anymore." And if you point it out and you listen to it, you will see it - immediately. So he has that sort of trust as do the actors that are involved and the designers and myself.

And of course once you start previews you have the audience reaction to add to that formula.

Which is why it is just so important to have a diverse group of audience members because you want to make sure that if something's not landing with one particular audience, it's not necessarily the script. It may be the dynamic of the audience. So you don't want to change your rhythm every night, you don't want to work too hard for a joke that just is not working, not land a joke because someone didn't laugh the night before. Because that is so important to the rhythm of the play. Some people won't get all the references, and some people don't want to laugh about DEATH AND THEre's different cultural differences. So some people will be laughing and will be like, 'I think that's funny, I just didn't know if I was allowed to laugh out loud or not". 

It reminds me a little of 'Clybourne Park' in that I remember people in the audience wanting to laugh, but yet feeling a little funny laughing about racism.

Right. And this has nothing to do with racism. This has something to do just with the idea of death, which is not a laughing matter. But when you get into the politics of it and how family members change and interact with each other surrounding death, it's quite hilarious. I think everyone has a story of how ridiculously crazy their families became in that situation once someone dies. It's definitely the world that we're living in.

You are both a writer and a director. Do you have a preference for one over the other?

I have a preference for whatever I'm doing at the time. In terms of being a writer and a director, I love coming into this process with Colman and not having to be the writer. You know, if I see something doesn't work, I don't have to figure it out necessarily, as the writer, he does. As the writer, it's a different side of my brain and you have to deal with different aspects. So I like separating them.

But I've been doing it long enough to know the joy of each and to embrace them fully. I'm not a director who wants to write, or a writer who wants to try directing. I write and I direct. There are clear interests that I have in both of them. And I have no problem saying, 'thank God I don't have to go home and rewrite that scene!" Or, "thank God I don't have to go home and figure out how to direct that moment - I have no idea how they're going to do that!" But because I do write, I know what the playwright needs. I know when Colman needs time and we have to stop rehearsals and I'll say, "ok, let's just take a break for twenty five minutes and let the playwright in the room serve that." And I don't have to make him jump through a hoop in five seconds. I understand the rhythm of the writing and the tone of the writing so I can support the playwright in that moment. 

Well best of luck with the show. It sounds like it's going to be a lot of fun.

Yes, I think it's an incredibly fun show and it's completely not what you think it's going to be, which is always so much fun. And just like death, you don't know what's going to happen and if you do know what's going to happen, you have no control over the circumstances. And the after effect - this is all about the after effect. You won't see anyone dying in the play - it has already happened. It's how the world view changes for everyone in the face of death.

The complete cast of WILD WITH HAPPY features Colman Domingo (Gil); Korey Jackson (Terry); Maurice McRae (Mo); and Sharon Washington (Adelaide, Aunt Glo). Performances will begin on Tuesday, October 9, and run through Sunday, November 11.  Single tickets are available by calling (212) 967-7555, www.publictheater.org, or in person at The Public Theater box office at 425 Lafayette Street.

(Photo: Colman Domingo, Korey Jackson, Sharon Washington, and Maurice McRae. Photo credit: Joseph Moran.)

 

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