THE LEADING MEN: Alexander Hanson and Colman Domingo

By Tom Nondorf
06 Jan 2010

Colman Domingo
photo by Aubrey Reuben
A Scottsboro Boy and His Soul
The Scottsboro Boys, the final collaboration between John Kander and Fred Ebb, is now in rehearsals for a March 10 opening at the Vineyard Theatre. The show, directed by Susan Stroman, features John Cullum, Brandon Victor Dixon, and our second January Leading Man, Colman Domingo, who stood out in multiple roles in Passing Strange on Broadway, and recently had his autobiographical one-man show, A Boy and His Soul staged, also at the Vineyard. Domingo's show will be produced again in the late spring by the Vineyard and Elizabeth Ireland McCann.

Question: Please fill folks in on just what The Scottsboro Boys is all about.
Colman Domingo: It is a musical based on the infamous 1931 Scottsboro boys case in Alabama, which was basically when nine African-American teenage boys were accused of raping two Caucasian women. Of course, because of the court system and the way things were set up and, of course, because of racism, these men were basically found guilty many times. I think there were about six trials. And, basically, they were innocent, and these two women lied and ruined these young men's lives forever. It's being performed as a musical with some minor elements of, structurally, a minstrel show. I feel strongly that it's the right way to tell the story: to make it entertaining and to get people to listen.

Q: How do you think the music functions in a show like that, with subject matter so deep and hurtful?
Domingo: I guess that's why it is in the hands of masters like Kander and Ebb, Susan Stroman, and [bookwriter] David Thompson. In their capable hands I think the music is really simple and powerful and entertaining and truthful. I think what they've crafted is something really special. I think it's really unconventional as well. The way that Kander and Ebb deal with subject matter in Chicago, or how Cabaret deals with Nazi Germany: How do you make that entertaining? They have the absolute, definite sensibility for this type of material. Get people to hear a story that is a wretched part of American history but in a way that is pretty powerful.

Q: Is it exciting for you to be involved in a Kander and Ebb show that has never been done?
Domingo: It is an honor. This is something I never set out to do. I never set out to do musicals. I've been predominantly a legitimate stage actor, and moving into musicals is exciting. And to do the final collaboration that Kander and Ebb were able to do before Ebb's death a few years back, you feel like you're a part of history.



Q: Director Susan Stroman is also a legend of sorts. How has it been working with her?
Domingo: We just started formal rehearsals yesterday. We did a workshop back in June, and boy, she has so much enthusiasm and positivity and she's a great leader. She is what every actor admires — they want to be inspired. I feel inspired just walking in the room by her enthusiasm and her knowledge. And you know you're in great, capable hands.

Q: You haven't done a ton of musicals, but you were a part of Passing Strange. Does it almost seem dreamlike looking back on that show from the time you first got involved to Joe's Pub, to Broadway, then the Spike Lee film?
Domingo: I guess this is maybe a time in my career when things are happening that I never expected. I never had expectations for this sort of thing. I knew I wanted to be on Broadway in some way, but I always thought it would be in a play. I thought I'd be doing some character work in a play. The idea of doing the musicals that I've been a part of, it's so unconventional. And even just from doing Passing Strange, the initial run was for Berkeley [Rep] and the Public Theater, and it didn't have Broadway aspirations. It's been about just being present and showing up and the universe just making things happen. It's been exciting. I did The Wiz last year. I took over for Orlando Jones playing the Wiz and that was a surprise, I never expected that. [Laughs.] I never expected to do Scottsboro Boys. I was all set to go to California to do a play that I did last year called Coming Home, but I was met with the opportunity to do Scottsboro Boys, and I knew that that was something I couldn't pass up. So all of it is a little bit of a dream, stepping into the realm of never having certain expectations and things just blowing your mind.

Q: I'm always fascinated that in doing this column, so many people had one acting teacher that had such an affect on their lives or one person that said something inspiring. Who inspired you?
Domingo: I always tell the story of this woman named Pat. I don't know her last name. I grew up in inner city west Philadelphia, and there was a summer program, and I was very shy and my mom wanted to help me get out of that shyness. And so I got into this summer program, and I didn't know actors or anything, I just knew they were playing theatre games and it sounded interesting to me. And the first woman I met was this woman named Pat, and she had a power with her words. Her elocution — I had never heard anyone speak like that, and I had never heard a black person speak like that from my limited experience, from my microcosm. And so she helped me with the power of words, the power of being present in the room and your voice having an effect. Because it changed me, it changed what I thought about the world. So I think she was definitely one of my biggest inspirations. And, it's funny because I was about 12 or something. I don't know what happened to her or where she is. She's this random mystery woman now to me. I almost think that I dreamed her up [laughs]. But this woman really inspired me, and I think that she had an effect on me for years.

Rebecca Naomi Jones with Colman Domingo in Passing Strange
photo by Carol Rosegg
Q: I have to tell you, I never walk past the Belasco Theatre without shouting out your phrase from Passing Strange, "What's inside is just a lie!"
Domingo: I get that on the street all of the time. People will always all of a sudden just [shout] "What's inside…!" and I'm shocked, usually. I'm like, "What? Somebody is yelling at me!" And all I see is a mouth yelling at me. That's a cool thing. I don't mind being known for that. You can be known for worse things [laughs]. I'm very proud of creating a character like Mr. Venus that I think that no one has ever seen or will ever see again on a Broadway stage.

[The Scottsboro Boys begins previews Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre on Feb. 12 prior to an official opening date of March 10. Tickets are now available by visiting the Vineyard Theatre Box Office (108 East 15th Street) or by calling (212) 353-0303 or online at www.vineyardtheatre.org.]

Hither and Yon
The Spike Lee film of Passing Strange comes out on DVD Jan. 12, and it is due on PBS's "Great Performances" early this year as well…So long to Altar Boyz, one of the most enduring Off-Broadway triumphs of recent vintage. It closes Jan. 10. Always a fun show I'd recommend for folks looking for good Off-Broadway laughs. For more info, www.altarboyz.com…Feb. 1, one night only, Sam Harris, "Star Search" legend, whose "Sugar Don't Bite" once rose to #36 on the Billboard charts, will be at Birdland. (Anyone remember his other Top 100 hit? Drop me a line.) That's at 7 PM on a Monday, which means it will be followed by Jim Caruso's Cast Party. Sounds like an altogether fine evening. Go to www.birdlandjazz for all the details…Jan. 22, the sublime Jay Michael Reeds sings at Don't Tell Mama on 46th Street, with Wells Hanley on piano and band. See www.donttellmamanyc.com for the full month's schedule of events…This month's bit of esoterica to ponder: What are your favorite doo-wop versions of standards? For instance Harry Warren and Al Dubin's "September in the Rain" was done by everyone from Dinah Washington to The Beatles, but it is the version by The Duprees that I favor. Your thoughts, as ever, are appreciated. Happy New Year!

Tom Nondorf can be reached at tnondorf@playbill.com.