BWW Interview: Colman Domingo on His Intervening BARBECUE, Hollywood & Controversies
Playwright Robert O'Hara's BARBECUE deservedly earned a rousing reception (and standing ovation) from The Geffen Playhouse's enthusiastic opening night audience September 14. BroadwayWorld and I had a chance to chat with O'Hara's frequent collaborator, actor/playwright/director Colman Domingo a few days after his directorial success.
Hello there, Colman! Thank you for taking the time to interview with BroadwayWorld and myself. And congratulations on your rousing opening night! I must say those were some great suede boots you were wearing?
Thank you so very much for noticing. I do what I can. (chuckle) I do what I can.
What feelings were rushing through your mind before the curtain went up that night?
I tend to be pretty calm. From being in the business for 25 years, I think I have a sense of just letting things be the way things be. I'm not stressed. I'm not thinking about it too much. I've released it, possibly, like four days before the opening night. I let it go. You have to have great collaborators, Give it to the hands of your artists and trust that the story's there. The agreements that you made will arrive and continue to strive. And that's it. I felt a sense of gratitude. Any time anyone invites you to come and tell a story, you come. You can actually just do it, work at these wonderful theaters and work with these great artists. Every single time, I'm truly humbled and appreciative.
Are you able to separate yourself from your directorial duties and simply enjoy the play as its unfolding?
Yes, every single time. Robert's writing is just so brilliant. He really gives a great platform for actors to engage with his dialogue, and engage with the audience. The audience is on a wild ride and I'm on that ride with them.
You must have been happy with the audience responses?
Beyond, beyond happy. Robert has so many twist and turns. And I love when an audience collectively gives you a sigh or a burst of laughter or applause. I mean that's the thing we always hope for in the theater. We're in this collective and everyone's on this ride together. And that's the way it feels.
Any unexpected audience responses so far that surprised you?
Sometimes it all depends. Robert's plays are designed in a such a thrilling way that I'm always really delighted when you can even hear the ripples from the audience when they catch on in the first turn of the play. Sometimes it can take a couple beats before they realize exactly what's happening, before they catch up, and then; it's a burst of excitement, wonder, thrill. They're beside themselves. That's my favorite moment - nine minutes into the play.
Now that BARBECUE has opened, do you and Robert allow for any more tweaks or fixes?
No. Once again, it's in the hands of the artists. Hopefully; the stage manager, my assistant director, they'll keep the shit moving. You hire the best actors. You hire actors who've been doing this for a while. They understand the nature of this beast, which is for it to grow. But, for it to grow within the agreement that we've made. So, no more tweaks. At some point, I'm just of the mind that no art is perfect and it shouldn't be perfect. I think it's beautiful in its imperfection. You could tweak something forever, but you have to let it go and trust it. This is what this production is supposedly to be, in every single way. You may look at it in a couple weeks and think, "Oh, wow! Maybe I should have call that light cue a little later," but you know what, now it's what it is.
What initially drew you to direct BARBECUE?
The offer from Robert O'Hara. I just finished shooting Season Two of my television show Fear From the Walking Dead, and I had six months of somewhat, not fully six months, of availability, 'cause I'm always working. But I had some windows opened. Within 24 hours, I said "Absolutely, Yes!" It was just a matter of schedule and once we realized it was going to work, I was on board. I originally played James T. in an early workshop of BARBECUE, so I knew the play so well. I had seen it at The Public Theatre. And I've been a huge advocate for the play. So it seemed to make sense to the both of us.
BARBECUE isn't your first collaboration with Robert O'Hara. Describe the first time you clicked professionally. It was before WILD WITH HAPPY in 2012, right?
Yeah, even before then. We did a play, one of the first plays I did when I moved to New York, AMERICAN MALL which he wrote and directed down at the Culture Project. So we've had a long history. I think we've known each other for at least 20 years. We have a great, great respect and admiration for each other's work. And I think our work is somewhat similar in terms of messages, the things we're interested in, the way we use language. So it just makes sense that we just play with each other in the playground together.
Do you approach directing your projects viewing the script as Bible or Shakespeare, where you or the actors can't change one word? Or does Robert O'Hara allow some room for paraphrasing?
There's no room for paraphrasing. Robert has a great ear for dialogue. The gift of working on a Robert O'Hara play is that you have to trust his language. It's all in there. You don't have to add one single thing. He just knows how real people speak. How they engage with one another. He doesn't write 'goddamn it,' he writes "gotdammit!" A lot of times he 'boldens' the lines. You understand that that needs a little more gravitas in some way. He helps you out.
What year was BARBECUE written?
It was commissioned from Steppenwolf and I think Robert wrote it, maybe, at least three years ago.
It feels so relevant to 2016. Was any scenes tweaked to address #oscarssowhite?
Not at all. This was written before any of that. He started this about three years ago, his commentary on this business, on addiction, on racial stereotypes, and family dynamics. These are strokes Robert already has in his works and is always examining. Something in his zeitgeist.
BARBECUE has two sets of actors for each role, one white, one black. What qualities of those auditioning were you focused on?
I think you just need an ensemble of people who are willing to take a leap off a cliff together. You need someone with a little bit of fool in them. They need to be super intelligent. They have to be willing to be a little foolish and laugh. You have to have group of fearless actors, all ten of them - fearless.
HAMILTON got in a little trouble with their specific 'non-white' cast breakdowns for their auditions. Don't you find that ironic? Or how do you feel about that situation?
The funny thing to me is you constantly send breakdowns. You know exactly what people are looking for - specifically. I think it makes sense for HAMILTON. The whole point of it is for it to be people of color and be immigrants, plain and simple. It sounds like backlash in some way. But, boy, do I know on the other end when it comes to casting. For 25 years, I've been very used to seeing things that clearly said that I was not being sought out for a role. I think it's alright for the creative to put out exactly what you're looking for. And that seems fine to me.
Do you prefer to direct others? Or be directed?
Both. I'm a collaborator. I don't mind being on the other side. I know how to lead a room, but I also know how to take direction and be a contributor as an artist.
As a director yourself, is it harder or easier to take direction from another director?
It's not easy or harder. It's just what it is. I know that that's my job. My job is to be directed in this piece. Then my job as a director is to direct and to lead. There's a certain way I understand. No matter what, if you're in the frame of mind of being a collaborator, it doesn't matter who's directing, who's being directed. Your job's to do and you're working together. You're both there to interrogate, to help investigate, and move the dial on collaboration.
You've been directed by Susan Stroman twice now (THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS and DOT). Since you wrote DOT, how differently did you communicate with her during DOT, then when you were an actor under her direction?
No difference. The reason why I knew Susan Stroman would be the perfect director for me for DOT is because of our relationship with THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS. We did five productions of it. And really worked together to create this thing. So the way we collaborate, it just makes sense. I'm someone she asks, not only as an actor, but as a dramaturg of my work. So it made sense as a playwright to invite her into the room. We're very open with each other. The thing I appreciate most of my collaborators is that we're very honest and direct and open. We push each other to be stronger and more detailed. It's so healthy. I really admire having really intelligent people in the room, plain and simple. I really appreciate intelligent collaboration in artists who are willing to stretch themselves. So, it made sense to work with Susan Stroman. And she's my friend. We really believe in each other.
How does playwriting rate in importance with your directing and your acting talents?
Equally. Because I'm polymath. Slash-slash-slash, I equally do many things. My acting career's no different from my writing career, my directing career. In my writing career, of course, I need to make more time; so I set myself up in retreats so I have time. Equally, each one feeds each other.
How did originating the role of Mr. Bones in THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS come about?
That across my desk from an offer from artistic director of the Vineyard Theatre Douglas Abel, and Susan Stroman, and John Kander. They were seeking an actor who had the skillset that I have who can play many roles. Roles playing racist white men in the south in 1931. They needed an African-American man to do that. Somehow that made sense that I am that guy who can do that. It began with a workshop and from there, it went on to the Vineyard Theatre production and then subsequently, The Guthrie and Broadway, and the Young Vic in the West End. I was on a great ride with that. And that all started with just saying, 'yes' to a workshop Off-Broadway. It's amazing when you say 'yes' to what you're doing because of activism., You're doing it because of a story you wanted to tell. You make choices based on that; maybe even based on economy. They change your life. THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS is that piece of theatre that changed my life.
Did you get to meet Fred Ebb?
What's your favorite Kander & Ebb song or show?
Actually to be very honest, I would say THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS. I think that's their work at their very best. THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS is not a piece of theatre that's built to make a lot of commercial money in any way. It is really about making an artistic statement about activism and the power of music and words. Because of THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS, the musical putting this case back on the conscience of America, we were able to finally have these men pardoned after 70 years. It's amazing that the things you stand for artistically; you can actually make a difference in the world.
You reprised your Broadway role of Mr. Bones in London's West End. How would you contrast and compare the three theatre communities of New York, London and Los Angeles?
New York is home. My New York theatre community, they're very generous and very supportive. London's is very revered. I love London. I love the way audience appreciate theatre, hearing new stories. There's a slight difference in the way we approach theatre. I'm an American workhorse. That's what I appreciate about the American sensibility. LA is so excited by theatre as well. This is a television and film capital. They revere it. They're open. They're interested in being challenged. These audiences at The Geffen Playhouse - there's energy in the room. They're so excited to be in the room and hear a new story. And they want that up close and personal. Everyone's in their cars all the time, so they're seeking engagement - live and in person.
I saw a commercial clip of your autobiographic A BOY AND HIS SOUL. You did some nice dance moves in it, by the way. Any plans to revisit that play?
I do not. That play was an experimental piece for me. I thought I'd write it and do it a few times and that was it. And then it turned into something that has turned up here and there for the last ten years. And that wasn't my intentions at all. It was an experiment earlier in my writing career, but it's been a great gift. I never say, 'never.' You never know. If there's a possibility to translate it to the small screen or the big screen in some way, or a series, or a special... But eight shows a week, I'm not quite sure.
Was last week your first time at the Toronto International Film Festival, being there as part of The Birth of a Nation?
I've been to many film festivals, but this was my first time at TIFF. I'm pretty much a usual suspect at Sundance. I've been at Sundance like five years. TIFF was exciting and wonderful. You hope to see some friends here and there, but it's busy. The best thing about film festivals, everyone there is excited about film. It's great to be there. It's an exciting time for the actors who are in films. We were extremely busy with publicity, press conferences, photo shoots; you name it. So, my schedule was action-packed. But I love what I do, so I'm excited when I get to do it at any time.
Two projects you've acted in (THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS and the upcoming film The Birth of a Nation) deal with rape. In THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS, the accused Boys were falsely persecuted for the rape that never happened. Your character Hank in The Birth of a Nation is the just-wedded husband of Gabrielle Union's Esther who is actually violated. Do you think accusations are as lethal to all parties involved as the actual deed?
I do, I do. It's very sensitive when it comes to allegations of rape. It's so hard, we always want to villainize someone, or support another. We just have to be careful. We're quick. We're quick-tempered with how we want to examine a case when we were not actually a part of, or not there. In some strange way; everyone, it's so tricky, needs to be examined with a very gentle hand, with respect for everyone; with THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS cases, or themes and other things surrounding The Birth of a Nation.
Back to BARBECUE, with what do you want The Geffen Playhouse audience to leave with after BARBECUE's curtain call?
Conversation. Hopefully, this isn't the kind of piece where they can just say, "Let's go to the car." I want you to go to the bar and have a conversation. Talk about what you experienced and the ride that you've been on and how you interpret the story. You all have the power to do that and examine who we are.
What's your next project?
My next project is going to the Emmys this weekend. And finally relax for a day. I go back to shooting my series in December. I just wrapped a film called First Match for Netflix.
You're always working and that's a good thing
Yes, that's a great thing.
Thank you again, Colman!
You're so very welcomed.
To see how the BARBECUE cast handles their 'no more tweaks' agreement with Colman and Robert, run (or drive) to see BARBECUE at The Geffen Playhouse. For tickets and schedule (through October 16, 2016), log on to www.geffenplayhouse.org