It was during the world premiere of Dot at last year's Humana Festival at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, that Colman Domingo realized his play was the third in a trilogy. He had first introduced audiences to characters in the same inner city neighborhood when he debuted "A Boy and His Soul” at the Vineyard Theatre in 2009. In his critically acclaimed one-man show, he played 11 different characters and spoke about his real-life experiences of growing up in West Philadelphia and later returning there to sell his childhood home. In 2012, Wild with Happy premiered at the Public, a more surrealist, madcap exploration of grief, where a son who has just lost his mother drives from Philly to Disney World to scatter her ashes from inside Cinderella's castle. Now Domingo takes us back to the city of brotherly love to give us his version of a Christmas story with an African American family that isn’t like other black narratives we’ve seen onstage. In Dot, we spend time with a family in crisis that is struggling to deal with their mother who has Alzheimer’s, watching the disappearance of memory in a once powerful activist who mistakes Oreos for salt and her daughter for the cleaning lady.
Coming home is the theme, the pulsing throughline that connects this trilogy. In fact, Domingo experiences his own happy homecoming with Dot, playing at the Vineyard through March 24. In Dot, Domingo has assembled a diverse cast, his largest ever, with characters that have made appearances in his other works. (Notably, Domingo does not star, whereas he has in his prior two shows.) Musical theatre legend Susan Stroman directs her first play with Dot, and Sharon Washington plays the oldest daughter, the primary caretaker.
Domingo, Washington and Stroman first worked together in 2010 on the world premiere of The Scottsboro Boys, also at the Vineyard. With performances by Domingo and Washington and direction and choreography by Stroman, the harrowing and subversive Kander and Ebb musical transferred to Broadway later that year, earning 12 Tony nominations, including one for Domingo for Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical and two for Stroman for Best Direction of a Musical and Best Choreography. The three reunited again in London for the musical's West End debut in 2014, and now they consider each other family.
During Scottsboro Boys Domingo began to write Wild With Happy and Dot, often trying out material with Washington whom he considers his muse. “He bribes me with a glass of wine,” says Washington, who also starred in Wild With Happy. The two will often sit together at the computer, each reading a part and then swapping roles. Even with the craziest ideas, they’re not afraid to being open to “the joy of failing” as Domingo calls it.
“It’s like jumping off a ledge together, holding hands. We’re going to try to create something that hasn’t been done before, but we have to have that spirit of being dangerous and elegant and not beholden to anything, and that’s what I get from working with Sharon,” he says.
As an actor, Washington admires Colman’s ear for dialogue. “I am very committed to learning the lines as written—his pauses and his silences—because then you get the rhythm of the way he writes. Once you have that, it is actually relatively easy. You need to sustain it. You need to have a lot of breath. But it pops and it just crackles.”
Stroman adds, “He is able to get humor and heartache in every sentence, and that is very rare for a playwright to be able to achieve that.” Domingo approached Stroman with the idea for the play during their time in London, and upon reading it she immediately fell in love with its characters and their accessibility. As director, she’s helped sharpen the play’s comic timing, drawing on her command of music and rhythm.
Domingo was largely absent from the rehearsal room for Dot, communicating over Skype or watching a couple of hours of rehearsal on FaceTime from Mexico where he is filming Season 2 of Fear of the Walking Dead (beginning April 10 on AMC). Unable to be physically present, Domingo learned a new way of communicating with Stroman; they had the freedom to create separately, together, knowing their work emanates from a history of shared experiences and mutual respect. Domingo sent rewrites in the mornings, and Stroman and the cast rehearsed from 10 AM–6 PM; the two connected each evening to talk about that day’s notes.
“I’m starting to realize why certain directors or writers work with the same creative team again and again. Things are interpreted in a very clear way,” says Domingo. “There’s complete trust.”
Dot also provided Stroman and Washington the opportunity to reunite and tackle something entirely different. In Scottsboro Boys, Washington's character signifies Rosa Parks in the end, but, throughout, represents the women and mothers who supported the Scottsboro boys; she was silent for the entire musical. In Dot she plays a firecracker of frustration with a deep longing for better days that she habitually suppresses with a trenchant wit and watermelon vodka.
“To go from this poetic character in Scottsboro Boys to a character that has such command of the language, and not only in words, but also in speed and pace and dynamics, it is like night and day,” says Stroman. “When I get the opportunity to work with actors to do something so diverse, that’s what’s such a joy.”
Both she and Washington recognize their good fortune in working together again on Dot, Washington commenting that she considers the play a touchstone in her career.
As for Domingo, he is happy to be at a point in his career where he gets to be “the architect” of his own life, carefully selecting his projects and who they involve—and that certainly includes his Vineyard homecoming with Stroman and Washington. “It’s about creating things that I really believe in. I’ve now been doing this for 25 years in this business; I feel like I’m in that place where I just want to work with who I love, or who I will fall in love with,” says Domingo. “If that means I’m on a plane two or three times a week because on the other end of that flight is something I’m completely in love with, then I’m all for it.”