Journeys of one kind or another — emotional, physical, spiritual — are at the heart of Colman Domingo's 2012 play "Wild with Happy," receiving its Baltimore premiere at Center Stage. There isn't just a road trip in this work, but a car chase.
Domingo always seems to be on an eventful ride, too.
The Philadelphia-born playwright and actor had a speech impediment as a child, so he retreated into books and writing. He majored in journalism when he entered college, but taking an elective course in acting led him in a whole new direction. And acting, in turn, led him into creating his own plays.
These days, he can be found in Atlanta working on the film "Selma," a biopic about the Rev. Martin Luther King directed by Ava DuVernay and produced by, among others, Oprah Winfrey.
"It is so awesome and cool to portray Rev. Ralph Abernathy in this film," Domingo says. "I don't want to do an impression. I'm trying to capture his humanity, take him out of the history books and convey his sense of generosity and humor."
Conveying humor comes easily to Domingo, who was a regular on the Logo/MTV Networks comedy series "The Big Gay Sketch Show" for its past two seasons, doing impersonations of Winfrey, Maya Angelou and many more.
Domingo's versatility as an actor was also on display when he handled three disparate roles in the rock musical "Passing Strange" that ran off-Broadway in 2007 and on Broadway the next year (Spike Lee later made a film of the production).
The actor then tackled nearly a dozen parts in the one-man, autobiographical "A Boy and His Soul," which earned him considerable praise — and an award from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation — when it opened in New York in 2009.
In that play, which he has performed in London and Brisbane, Australia, Domingo's life story emerges with honesty, humor and a whole lot of classic soul music. Two crucial episodes involve coming out to his family (which went well), and dealing with the death of his mother in 2006, within months of his stepfather's passing.
Domingo returned to themes about death and sexuality when he wrote "Wild with Happy," which had its off-Broadway premiere last season at the Public Theater.
"Colman's trying to find ways to experience deep truths of the human experience," says Jeremy B. Cohen, producing artistic director of the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis and director of "Wild with Happy" at Center Stage. "He takes you to a more raw, vulnerable space than a lot of writers are willing to go."
In New York, and the work's West Coast premiere last summer, the playwright starred as Gil — a cynical 40-year-old, Ivy League-educated African-American actor who "still has $80,000 of student loans, an illegal sublet in Spanish Harlem," and baggage from being left by his boyfriend. The death of Gil's mother in Philadelphia sets the one-act play spinning in unexpected directions.
"I never developed this for myself, but when I perform in it, the audience starts to believe it is based on my experiences, that Gil is really me," Domingo says. "But Gil does the opposite of the things I did or would do."
At Center Stage, Gil is being played by Domingo's friend Forrest McClendon. Each of them received Tony Award nominations for their work in the 2010 Broadway production of the Kander and Ebb musical "The Scottsboro Boys."
"Forrest is such a virtuoso artist," Domingo says. "I am looking forward to seeing what he does with the role. It's a crazy good cast."
Joining McClendon are Stephanie Berry in the dual role of Gil's mother, Adelaide, and his equally vivid Aunt Glo; James Ijames as a personable funeral director (and other characters); and Chivas Michael as Gil's sassy buddy Mo (and others).
At a critical juncture in "Wild with Happy," there's a dash from Philadelphia to Disney World, Gil and Mo in one car, Aunt Glo and the funeral director chasing after them in another.
Given that Gil is carting his mother's ashes in an urn, this journey takes on multiple implications and eventually offers multiple messages. And the splashy Florida destination isn't necessarily the last stop for anyone involved (not even for the ashes).
"Nothing is more freeing than a road trip," Domingo says.