You know you’ve achieved a certain level of success when you’re on line, waiting to get into an exclusive magazine party, and Spike Lee sticks his head out the door, sees you waiting and immediately says, “Get him in here.”
That’s what life is like these days for Colman Domingo, one of those Bay Area success stories: young actor moves here, starts working like crazy, emerges as a major talent and then heads off to New York and stardom.
For Domingo, who moved from San Francisco to New York in 2001, the turning point came with Passing Strange, the Tony Award-winning musical that had its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre before heading to the Public Theater in New York and an eventual transfer to Broadway.
“The Passing Strange experience led to a lot of things career-wise,” Domingo says. “Creatively and spiritually, that was the most dynamic theater experience I’ve had in 15 years of being in this business.”
Domingo is back in the Bay Area, his old stomping grounds, for a revival of his solo show, A Boy and His Soul, opening Wednesday, Sept. 3, as part of Thick Description’s 20th anniversary season.
The 38-year-old actor returns as a Broadway veteran who now has a management and a publicist. He was just splashed across the pages of Out magazine in a glamorous fashion spread, and he’s a regular on the LOGO network’s Big Gay Sketch Show.
“For me, being in this business 15 years, the idea that it’s all happening now, at 38, is great,” Domingo says. “I’ve worked toward this. I don’t know if I’d have appreciated this at 23.”
Though the Broadway experience had its dazzle – rubbing shoulders with Edward Albee and Marian Seldes during awards season, breakfast with Spike Lee, etc. – it also had its rigors. To maintain his health and stamina, Domingo says he “lived life as a nun.” He saw a chiropractor for the first time in his life.
“The work day began at 3 p.m.: eat, work out, nap,” Domingo explains. “On your day off you really had to do nothing. And then there all the events you need to attend, the press stuff. A friend got upset with me because I hadn’t called her or seen her. `No one can be that busy,’ she said. With a show on Broadway, actually you can be that busy. I had no idea.”
Domingo insists the success hasn’t gone to his head and that his friends keep him grounded.
“This has been a high time, a nice time,” he says. “I understand it and appreciate it. I’m enjoying the ride of it all. I still have my closest friends around me. I still have my apartment in Harlem. It’s nothing fancy. I just have better furniture now. For the first time I have furniture I actually bought and wasn’t handed down. I always realize that I could be back bartending like I was two years ago. This is a great time, but I’m very lucky – no different from any other actor.”
During Domingo’s decade in the Bay Area – “I tell people it’s where I became an artist” – Domingo hatched A Boy and His Soul – he connected with Thick Description on Oliver Mayer’s Blade to the Heat in 1997, and the seeds for A Boy and His Soul, the story of Domingo’s childhood in Philadelphia in the 1970s, began to sprout.
Thick D artistic director Tony Kelly eventually directed the premiere of Boy in 2005 and began talking to Domingo about bringing it back for the anniversary season even before Passing Strange took off.
“I was happy with the San Francisco version,” Domingo says, “but it needed more work, more focus.”
In addition to work done at the New York Theatre Workshop and recent re-writes with Kelly in New York, Domingo says the piece has deepened with the loss of his parents in the last two years.
“Passing Strange helped me heal, especially after losing my mom,” Domingo says. “I had my first audition on a Monday with the callback on Wednesday. My mom passed away on Tuesday. They held the callback for me two weeks later and sang an a cappella gospel song. It’s so interesting, with all that, and Broadway, I’ve been through something and life has changed so much. It’s good to get back to A Boy and His Soul.”
Domingo was recently back in Philadelphia visiting his sister and visiting old haunts. “It feels so different but inherently the same,” he says. “I feel like I’m always in a dream state when I’m here.”
In the less dreamy real world, Domingo’s career is still burbling. He has a bit part in Spike Lee’s new movie Miracle at St. Anna, a World War II drama in which he plays a West Indian postal customer. Of course he’ll also be in Lee’s filmed version of Passing Strange, which took place during the show’s final days on Broadway in July. And he plays a ’70s disc jockey in An Englishman in New York starring John Hurt.
As for a return to Broadway after his brief San Francisco sojourn, he says it could happen.
“I’m sniffing around a production or two,” he says. “Right now I’m in a place of what’s next? A lot of meetings. A lot of possibilities.”
A Boy and His Soul runs Sept. 3 through 14 at the Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$30 on a sliding scale. Call 415-401-8081 or visit www.thickhouse.org
Here’s Domingo as a gay grandson visiting his grandmother on “The Big Gay Sketch Show” (the language is ROUGH, so don’t watch this at work…at least not with the sound on):