PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Colman Domingo, Writer and Star of The Public's Wild With Happy

By Robert Simonson
October 10, 2012

Colman Domingo returns to The Public Theater, where he helped populate Passing Strange. This time, he's a playwright-actor, conjuring a new play about dealing with death.



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Over the past few seasons, New York theatregoers have gotten a good idea what sort of actor Colman Domingo is. He played significant roles in two high-profile Off-Broadway musicals: Stew's Passing Strange at the Public Theater; and Kander and Ebb's The Scottsboro Boys at the Vineyard Theatre. Both transferred to Broadway. Most recently he starred in Athol Fugard's Blood Knot for Off-Broadway's Signature Theatre Company. Now audiences are getting a taste of what kind of playwright he is (while still being reminded of his skills as a performer). Domingo stars in the Public Theater production of his own new play Wild With Happy. He plays Gil, a man who has just lost his mother, and is dealing with the disposal of her remains. Domingo spoke to Playbill.com about how the new work strikes close to home.

This new play of yours was inspired by personal experience.
Colman Domingo: Yes it was. It's funny — in the beginning I didn't think it was. I thought I was exploring something about mother-son relationships. And then not only my story became part of the journey, but also those of friends and relatives. It became an amalgamation of many stories of grief and dealing with the bizarre, surreal time during that process. I wanted to focus on a character who was more unlike myself, someone who was not at the center of his own grieving state. I was actually someone who more leaned forward into the grieving of my parents' passing in 2006. I dove deep into it and emerged, I think, a different person — a bit more enlightened, a bit open, loving and generous, I think. Gil is sort of a lot of me, but on the flip side.

How long after the death of your parents did you started writing it?
CD: I started writing this play two years ago. Right after I appeared in The Scottsboro Boys.

Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon in The Scottsboro Boys.
photo by Paul Kolnik

I know you wrote one play before this. Is this your second?
CD: This is actually my fourth play.

You say the character takes the opposite emotional tack than you did in your own experience with the passing of a loved one. His mother dies, right?
CD: Yes. And he's an only child. The weight of the process, what to do with a person's remains, how do you put a person in the ground, is on him, and is in direct contrast with his aunt, who is more of a traditionalist. He makes an abrupt decision about what to do, based on economics, based on trying to move through the process quickly. He makes a rash decision, and it's in direct conflict with what his aunt believes should be done. She believes there's a certain way to deal with a person's remains. And this guy asks "Why? Why can't we try something different?"

You're playing the lead character. Does that makes things tricky? Does the character's experience gets mixed up in your mind with your own?
CD: It doesn't. Initially, I kept trying to not be in the show. Every workshop we did, I tried to be just the playwright. But whether it was economics or whatever, my director Robert O'Hara said, "Colman I think you should just do this one." Thematically, yes, I relate to the character. But a lot of the aspects of the character are not from my experience, truly, and the way my heart operates. This is a very icy character, honestly. A little cold. A little shut off. Part of his journey is to become a believer again, to have some hope, some faith. When we're dealt a hard hand, hopefully we all try to find a little hope that we will rise again.

Domingo and Stew in Passing Strange.
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Why is it called Wild With Happy?
CD: Those words came out of one of my dearest friend's mouths when we were having this really beautiful experience. She said, "Look at everyone. They're wild with happy." That ecstatic state of happiness — people are always trying to find in their lives. Whatever that is — being happy is pretty awesome; but being "wild with happy"?

You were in Passing Strange at the Public. Did that make it easier to hand the Public this play to read?
CD: The Public has always been very supportive of me as an artist. They always knew that I was more than just an actor. Back in San Francisco, I was producing plays, writing plays. In New York, a lot of people didn't see me as that. But the Public has always invited me back, to see what else I can do. The moment I had my first draft, I sent it out to friends. Once the Public saw it, they were pretty immediate about moving on it.

Is there one you prefer over the other, acting or writing?
CD: I actually think I prefer writing. I've been acting for 22 years. Playwriting is still a whole new muscle, and I'm always intrigued on how to tell a story and how to invite an audience in. It's tricky. The kind of writer I am, I'm actually a collaborative writer. I like to write in the room with actors and a director. I'm not a private writer. I will write some dialogue, I will write some scenes, lay it out for my actors, and then play around. Robert O'Hara said I'm very much an actor's writer. I'm very focused on making the writing actable.

You've been doing a lot of acting in film lately — "Red Hook Summer," "Lincoln," "The Butler." Does the money that brings in give you more freedom to write?
CD: I think it does. I'm still reaping the benefits of that. The most beautiful thing for me is when I'm on location shooting a film. You're usually not called every day. When I have free time and am in a hotel and have a per diem, that's like workshop money. It's supporting my playwriting. During the time I was in New Orleans shooting "The Butler," I came out with a first draft of a new play.