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.
The 44-year-old Domingo's acting career has included roles in such recent, high-profile products as Stephen Spielberg's "Lincoln" and Lee Daniels' "The Butler."
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.
That trip generates humor around every curve, the kind of humor that springs from everyday situations and worries, and the sometimes surprising ways we handle them. But while "on the surface it appears to be a broad comedy, a satire," Domingo says, there is plenty of serious stuff inside, including that matter of dealing with death.
"So many people I know who have lost loved ones didn't [grieve] well," Domingo says. "Some people decide not to lean into grief. I grieved deeply. And going through two huge deaths in one year raised a lot of questions. That's what I try to do in this play."
One question is about the practical decision-making any death requires of those related to the departed.
"My own mother's burial was very conventional, with a church service," Domingo says. "But I wondered why do we have to follow convention, and whose traditions are they? It's all about the survivors, not 'the body,' and the survivors have to try to find a middle ground, a way to get through this together."
In the play, Gil thwarts expectations and orders a cremation. But, as Aunt Glo is quick to remind him, "Our people just don't do that." Besides, she notes, Gil is clearly trying to avoid grieving.
But Gil is giving plenty of thought to cosmic matters of life and death, wondering what the purpose is in either.
"I think we always question those issues, especially when things are not going in our favor," Domingo says. "I'm constantly examining. I'm not a blind-faith person. You must question, even if you believe. And at the core of living, you have to believe in something."
Maybe even fairy tales.
Domingo refers to Gil as a "deconstructed Cinderella," someone who sees no point in make-believe. Other roles in the play contain hints of a fairy godmother and wicked stepmother, along with a Prince Charming (that's the funeral director). Adding to the fairy-tale imagery, the final scene takes place in a sumptuous "Cinderella Suite" at Disney World, complete with fireworks outside.
"Parts of the play are syrupy sweet," Domingo says, "and I don't mind. I'm constantly laying things on thickly. I absolutely intend to do this. I was writing particularly for the cynical theater-goer. I want see if you can still sit there with your arms folded at the end."
When Center Stage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah attended a performance of "Wild with Happy" in New York, his reaction was anything but indifferent. He quickly scheduled the play, which he describes as "joyous," for Center Stage.
Kwei-Armah was taken to see the work by Cohen, who directed Kwei-Armah's play "Let There Be Love" at Center Stage in 2010.
"Colman is a longtime friend of mine," Cohen, 41, says, "and when Kwame became artistic director here [in 2011], Colman was one of the artists I wanted to introduce him to. They're like the two most charming people on Earth."
Cohen eagerly accepted the directing gig for "Wild with Happy" at Center Stage.
"As a gay artist, I am glad not to be seeing one more AIDS death or one more hairdresser onstage," he says.
The director finds a lot that is upbeat in Domingo's work.
"You can get cynical about art, how it's made and who's paid what," he says. "Colman's legacy will be that he brought joy to people, whatever he does. I think he's in all of the characters in 'Wild with Happy,' not just Gil and Adelaide, who believes in love and light and possibility. I think he lives in Mo, too, and part of him in Glo. She's the truth-teller of the play."
When Domingo started writing the play, he envisioned Aunt Glo as peripheral.
"But she kept coming in," the author says. "That character just had more to say. She became an amalgam of many things — church, tradition, family values. She's the other side of the coin from Adelaide."
Domingo may not be closely related to the character of Gil, but when he wrote about the bond between Gil and his mother, he consciously tapped into something personal.
"I wanted to set up in this play a narrative where the mother and son had a very close bond even from childhood," Domingo says. "I felt I haven't heard that story told very often. My mother was my very best friend. [Coming out] was only a slight bump in the road. Our love was so close."
Domingo, who is now working on several plays ("One is a family drama about early dementia, but with my sense of humor"), takes an optimistic view about gay rights and how that issue is viewed in the African-American community.
"I think things are getting better," he says. "And the more we see diversity in all mediums and platforms, the better it will be. I personally always felt free as an African-American gay man. Someone asked me how Spike Lee feels about me being gay. I told them it's never come up. It is no issue unless you make it one. If you're secretive, then you think it's a problem."
When Kwei-Armah chose "Wild with Happy" for the Center Stage lineup this season, he said he wanted to reach out to the gay community, which he felt the company had underserved.
"I hope we pack as many homosexuals into the theater as we can, and all go out to the Hippo afterward," Cohen says with a laugh. "But it's not just a play for gays. There's room at the table for everyone."
"The play is very specific, and it is a very gay play," he says. "It's also an African-American play. But being so specific, it becomes universal. It's not about sex. It's about love and redemption."