Colman Domingo talks Nat King Cole
Nat "King" Cole. Courtesy The Otto Files Playwright Colman Domingo, best known for the musical Passing Strange, discusses Lights Out: Nat 'King' Cole When Colman Domingo talks about himself – he downplays his talent and brilliance. He speaks
Nat “King” Cole. Courtesy The Otto Files
Playwright Colman Domingo, best known for the musical Passing Strange, discusses Lights Out: Nat ‘King’ Cole
When Colman Domingo talks about himself – he downplays his talent and brilliance. He speaks as if he’s talking about someone else and insists it’s all “about the work.” His reluctance is understandable because this prolific artists’ list of credits and accomplishments is so vast and diverse.
A triple threat, Domingo, best known for the musical Passing Strange, his portrayal of Victor Strand in AMC’s Fear The Walking Dead, and most recently as Joe Rivers in Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, is not only a stage, screen, and television actor, he’s also a director and a recognized and quite gifted playwright.
Next up for the artist is Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole, opening Feb. 13, at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, Calif. The show stars Dule Hill in the title role. Domingo, 49, co-wrote the show along with Patricia McGregor, who is also the director.
Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole, which had its premiere at People’s Light Theatre in October 2017, is described as an electrifying exploration into the soul of an American icon. Domingo and McGregor imagine Nat “King” Cole as he faces the final Christmastime broadcast of his groundbreaking variety show and weighs the advice of his friend Sammy Davis Jr., to “go out with a bang.” Cole’s hit songs, such as Nature Boy, It’s a Good Day, and Smile, underscore this original homage to the renowned performer who struggled to break through America’s color barrier in the early days of television.
Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole is only his latest venture. There’s more. A prolific writer, Domingo’s writing credits also include Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, Dot, Wild With Happy, In The Middle of the Street, and A Boy and His Soul. His stage, television and film credits are too lengthy to list.
Artistically, he truly is the full package.
It doesn’t hurt that Domingo, a Philadelphia native who studied journalism at Temple University, is easy on the eyes. He’s one of those ruggedly handsome, smoldering gents. You know the type. He has that bushy stache, full lips, come hither eyes and stop-you-dead-in-your-tracks smile. And while outwardly he’s a certifiable hunk, a conversation with this award-winning artist unearths his real truth. He’s a smart, personable, thoughtful and compassionate man who wants his creative contributions to incite movement toward the world having a meaningful conversation.
I recently spoke to the OBIE and Lucille Lortel Award winner and nominee for the Tony, Lawrence Olivier, Drama Desk, Drama League, and NAACP Award honors.
DD: Describe the show in your own words.
CD: Nat “King” Cole. We deal with the date of his final TV show in 1957. Sammy (Davis Jr.) plays the provocateur. We look into the Nat “King” Cole psyche. We try to present what he would have had to deal with at that time. He was walking through this world through grace. He also had a fire in him. He would be insulted and he still had a quiet revelation.
DD: Is this a typical jukebox musical?
CD: Not at all. We use the songs to help tell the story. We deconstruct the songs so you understand the meaning. When you get to Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire, you’ll never hear it the same way again. You’ll understand the cost and the price that had to be paid to create that song.
DD: What is it about Nat “King” Cole that speaks to you?
CD: He was a perfect opportunity to deconstruct an icon and look into the soul of America. All the ideology we were trying to sell to America. We see who we really are. I got frustrated. He had grace and phenomenal talent. But then I had to think of what he had to go through and burn it all down. I thought he wasn’t as vocal as his counterparts. He was just being. He had to do his show. He wanted to make sure it lasted a year, without a major sponsor. At the time he was hemorrhaging money. Think about that. I gotta say, we have amnesia as a culture.
DD: What did you know about Nat “King” Cole before you started to write the show and what did you think made him an interesting subject?
CD: All I knew was his music. I remember I got stuck on an image I saw of him. I saw powder on his face. He had to do certain things even though he was the most talented performer. He had to put white powder on his face to appear lighter. That made it more comfortable for people who were watching TV. He had to do it to appease the south and play the game. How much can I play the game? He was the perfect subject for me. I wrestle with it as an artist myself. There is a burning question about grace and about keeping your mouth shut. As I get older, I care less.
DD: The show takes place as Cole faces the final Christmastime broadcast of his groundbreaking variety show and weighs the advice of his friend Sammy Davis Jr. to “go out with a bang.” Why?
CD: Great question. I wasn’t interested in a cradle-to-grave story. I like to deal with a moment of crossroads or catharsis. Nat King Cole said in an Ebony article in 1958 that his show wasn’t embraced because “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.” That’s a fascinating time to start from. The end of the play becomes a welcome call for all of us. It’s about America. I pull the rug at the end and offer the question to the audience – “So what are you going to do?” Once you have a platform, what do you do with it? We all have platforms. We all have phones and we have Twitter.
DD: People have lots of choices for theater in Los Angeles. Why should they come to see this show? Why does this show matter?
CD: More than ever they should see this show. We began writing this show after the presidential election. We looked at things that frustrated us. We looked at how we’re entertained. It’s the price of the ticket we’ve all bought these days by participating or not participating. It’s entertaining, hilarious and then we pull the rug out. We want to challenge you.
DD: Talk about the research. Did you get a chance to talk to family members, etcetera?
CD: I sure did. I also got a lot of information from the Schomburg Library. I researched magazine articles and listened to everything he recorded. I began a friendship with his brother who is wonderful. We also had a sense of theatricality – we had the liberty to write. This is not a typical biopic. This show is about theatrical exploration.
DD: Talk about writing this show with your co-writer/director Patricia McGregor.
CD: There has to be a sense of openness and an agreement in what you’re interested in. I’ve admired Patricia McGregor for being socially conscious. Working with women is a nice balance. We wrote this by a few hotel pools. That’s unconventional. Why can’t we write out in the light? We’d pitch to each other and take sections. I don’t know what lines I wrote and what lines she wrote. I would pop in and out of rehearsals. I didn’t need to be there all the time. I have trust [in] what she does.
DD: For whom did you write this show – Blacks or Whites?
CD: All people. Black people will come to the show. Nat “King” Cole is one of those rare people that have equal fan bases. He’s in everyone’s home and hearts. It’s important to have a mixed audience of the young, old, Black, White and the disenfranchised. The theater is for the people. It has to be accessible.
DD: What did you find out about Nat “King” Cole that you didn’t know prior to writing this show?
CD: There is an Ebony magazine article. He broke it down point by point about why his show didn’t succeed. He was a very intelligent man. He understood the ins and outs of this business. He understood passion and fire.
DD: What did you find out about yourself while writing this show?
CD: I think I [found] that I raise questions about humanity. Looking through the eyes of when I was in my 20s, 30s, and 40s; I write plays that I have deep questions about. I’ve become more outspoken. I never let politics gloss my art. I can say even more with my art. I found that out with Nat “King” Cole. It’s in the lyrics.
DD: You’ve been in the biz for a while. What did you expect from Hollywood and what did you get?
CD: A lot of duplicitous people. They are there, but, I gotta say, I’ve been welcomed into a lovely community. I can spot a snake oil salesman a mile away. I live a little outside of LA – that’s healthy for me. I have a normal everyday life. I live in a quiet, little town and it makes sense for me. I don’t have to subscribe to the trappings of a Hollywood artist. It’s important for me to be a storyteller. It’s not about the accolades. Accolades have their place. They help move the dial on your projects.
DD: Dule Hill. What does he bring to the table? Why is he the right person?
CD: Dule is like a modern-day Nat King Cole. He has a bit more fire in him. I forgot he was a song and dance man. He can tap like no one else can. He can sing and croon. That was Patricia’s suggestion. Once we got him involved, we knew this was going to be great.
DD: As a writer are you a stickler about your words or do you allow actors to fly and change things here and there?
CD: It’s important to stick to the dialogue. I’m an actor who respects writers. I write uhs and ahs and all of that. I write about how people speak. I make room for the divine to reside. In the end, it’s something I can’t write and Patricia (the director) can’t direct.
DD: At the end of the day – what would have made your career worth it?
CD: To know I’ve been respected for the things I created – like my writing. It’s my truth, my legacy. I hope to help people think.
Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole, co-written by Colman Domingo, directed and co-written by Patricia McGregor, stars Dule Hill, Gisela Adisa, Connor Amacio Matthews, Ruby Lewis, Zonya Love, Mary-Pat Green, Daniel J. Watts, Brandon Ruiter, and Bryan Dobson.
Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole, Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 LeConte Ave., Los Angeles; 8 p.m., Tues.-Fri.; 3 and 8 p.m. Sat.; 2 and 7 p.m. Sun. through March 17, 2019; $30-$120; 310 208-5454; www.geffenplayhouse.org.