Colman Domingo: Big Gay Showstopper

By Brandon Voss

Originally published on Advocate.com April 13 2010 6:00 PM ET

Much like his blindingly illuminated RuPaul impersonation on Logo’s The Big Gay Sketch Show, Colman Domingo is enjoying the ever-brightening spotlight. After appearing in the Tony-winning Broadway musical Passing Strange and Spike Lee’s subsequent film adaptation, the Philadelphia native recently won a GLAAD Media Award for A Boy and His Soul, his autobiographical off-Broadway solo show. Now he's back at the Vineyard Theatre in The Scottsboro Boys, a controversial John Kander and Fred Ebb musical, which reopens on Broadway next season. Between lunch dates with Mr. Lee and Mr. Kander, Domingo discusses the big responsibilities of being the only black soul on The Big Gay Sketch Show — and the only gay soul in just about everything else.

Advocate.com: As seen in a preview clip that’s already gone viral, you play RuPaul in a RuPaul’s Drag Race parody from The Big Gay Sketch Show’s new season, which begins April 13. That’s very ballsy of you guys to mock another Logo show.
Colman Domingo: RuPaul’s Drag Race is on such a great high, and sometimes it’s nice to spoof one of your own. It’s done with such great humor and love, so we’re honoring it in our own special way. RuPaul is strong and hilarious, but it’s also a fact that he’s over-lit like old-school Joan Crawford, so we wanted to kick that up a bit.

I know that clip’s been teased during RuPaul’s Drag Race commercial breaks, but has Ru definitely seen your impersonation?
I’m sure he’s heard about it, but I’m not sure he’s seen it yet. I assume so.

Well, watch out, because you know you’ll run into him sooner or later.
[Laughs] Yeah, she may cut me.

Your breakout character last season was Maya Angelou, but you probably don’t have to worry about her watching Logo.
Who knows? Maybe some gay friends of hers turned her on to it. I’m sure she’s got a good sense of humor, so Maya would totally get it. My Maya’s going to be making a big splashy return this season.

Which other new characters can we expect from you?
Whoopi Goldberg, Tyra Banks, and Beyoncé. Beyoncé will be battling Svetlana in a dance-off. I’m going to be playing even more women because I’m now the only African-American actor on the show. Erica Ash isn’t on the show anymore, so now I’ll be playing all the black men and women.

What’s it like to be the sole black member of a sketch troupe?
I’m always very conscious of what I’m doing and where the joke is, but our writing team is also very responsible. We spoof, but we also have a great respect for the characters that we portray. I’m not playing any crazy thugs or anything, and it’s all in light fun. Everyone welcomes my perspective, so I’ll absolutely say something if I think a sketch is leaning toward being hateful or offensive. Even as she reads “missed connections” on Craigslist, I want to make sure Maya Angelou’s saying things that are funny but not too vulgar.

And as a bonus, you don’t have to compete with anyone when it’s time for someone to spoof Beyoncé.
Yes, I don’t have to fight anyone for the black characters anymore. Erica Ash and I used to go to the mat! Now I get ’em all. I want to go for the Asian and Latino characters too.

How hands-on was executive producer Rosie O’Donnell this season?
She was even more involved this season when it comes to the sketches that we chose and things like that. We also have a huge list of celebrity folks dropping by this season, so it’s been a lot of fun.BIG GAY SKETCH MAIN X390 (PROMO) | ADVOCATE.COMDoes Rosie ever invite the cast over to her house?
No. [Laughs] The woman’s very busy. She’ll come to some of the premiere parties, but I don’t expect dinner at Rosie’s anytime soon. She has taken some cast members on her family cruises, though.

You have a very broad audience when you do theater, but you’re basically performing exclusively for the gay audience on Big Gay Sketch Show. I imagine that must be pretty liberating.
It is. First of all, we have too much fun together. Our jokes have been funneled to be specific to our fan base, but we’re also broadening our reach when it comes to our comedy. Some things will have a gay sensibility, but they won’t necessarily be specifically a gay topic. But it’s really cool that we can connect with our humor without making any excuses. Ultimately, I love that we can just be ourselves.

After working with only gay actors on Big Gay Sketch Show, do you ever get culture shock when you find yourself the sole gay person in another cast?
Oh, that happens all the time. It’s very common for me to be the lone gay man on a project. But there’s a Law & Order: Criminal Intent coming out in a few weeks where I’m the butchest guy in the episode. I play this Haitian guy, and I get to walk into a club, backhand this girl, knock this other guy out, and sit around with my troupe of thugs. I had a good giggle about it because all these extras around me were like real thugs, but here I am, this gay boy, and I’m the one running this motherfucker.

You’re currently starring in the sold-out off-Broadway hit The Scottsboro Boys, a world-premiere musical by John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, the team behind hit musicals like Chicago, Cabaret, and Kiss of the Spider Woman. It’s also got a book by Chicago’s David Thompson, and it’s directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman of The Producers fame. The critically acclaimed production is set to transfer to Broadway next season, but what has your experience with the show been like so far?
It’s truly incredible. I got an email from John Kander last night that said, “I’m just back in town. Let’s go to lunch.” The idea of me going to lunch with John Kander is something I never could’ve imagined, but these people are now a part of my family. I understand why these people are legendary because they’re the most generous, inspiring people I’ve ever met. I’ve been really lucky and blessed to even be in a room with these people.

The Scottsboro Boys is about the true story of a group of African-American teens falsely accused of rape in the 1930s. Did you have any hesitations doing a musical — created by white folks, mind you — that tells this racially sensitive story by using old minstrel show conventions? That sounds pretty risky on paper.
It could’ve fallen apart and been a nightmare, but I’ve known the show was in capable hands since the first day of rehearsal. The whole process has been so intelligent and tasteful. Everyone did their research and knows their history, which is why the piece is soaring beyond the beyond, and they all welcomed input and acknowledged my voice in the room. It works to do the show in a minstrel format because it’s entertaining, but it’s a convention that mixes absurdity with realism, so we can go anywhere we want at any time. I’m excited to be a part of something so bold and daring. The show really feels like it has the blessing of the Scottsboro boys themselves.

You play a number of roles in The Scottsboro Boys, which isn’t the first time a show has required you to play multiple characters.
I thrive on that, but it is very challenging. I recently did a play, Athol Fugard’s Coming Home at Long Wharf Theatre, where I played one character throughout — I sat at a table and didn’t have any costume changes. Following one character’s arc from beginning to end is a whole different mindset. Doing multiple character work is athletic in every way — vocally, physically, spiritually, and mentally. With a show like Passing Strange, I usually lose about 12 pounds.BIG GAY SKETCH 3 X390 (PROMO) | ADVOCATE.COMOut of the characters you played in Passing Strange, Mr. Franklin, your flamboyant yet oppressed choir director, was especially memorable.
For that role I drew from the many men I knew who are too afraid to come out and come to terms with who they are in the world. I’ve been blessed with a loving family that has accepted me from the moment I came out, so I was always able to be myself, but there are a whole lot of gay men living in the shadows. I have some friends who are still dealing with that, and I think it’s a sad existence, but hopefully people like you and me can be inspirations to these guys.

Spike Lee directed the film version of Passing Strange, which came out on DVD earlier this year. Is he gay-friendly?
Absolutely. His mind is like his work — it’s far-reaching and it draws from many different human experiences. People forget that RuPaul was in Spike Lee’s Crooklyn, and it was a fabulous role. Spike’s awesome. I just had lunch with him yesterday, and he’s a real good, supportive person.

How did being gay inform your autobiographical solo show, A Boy and His Soul, last year?
I wasn’t really a specific character when I first starting writing it. I was writing more about music and my family, and a friend said, “Where are you in this story?” The show’s about soul, the love of music, and the love of who you are, so I realized I had to put my soul in there too. My coming out enabled me and my family to open ourselves up, so I knew that had to be an important component of the show. Some people wanted to highlight the gay aspect and make it about that one thing, but it’s also about love, family, acceptance, relationships, change, the changing of a neighborhood, where we live, and where we’re going. I was very conscious about making sure the show was about more than being gay, just as gay people are about so much more than being gay.

That said, A Boy and His Soul recently won a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding New York Theater: Broadway and Off-Broadway, beating out high-profile gay-themed nominees like Next Fall and The Temperamentals.
And I feel like that’s the point, in a way — because I cast a broader net than just a coming out story. I was so honored. I couldn’t go to the awards ceremony because I was doing The Scottsboro Boys that night. After my show I’m getting off the subway, the N/R at Times Square, and who do I see but [Next Fall playwright] Geoffrey Nauffts with a GLAAD Award in his hand. He doesn’t know me from Adam, but I went up to him and said, “My name’s Colman and our shows were nominated together tonight, but apparently you’ve won, so I wanted to say ‘congratulations.’ I’m so happy for you.” He said, “Thank you, but I actually accepted this for Brothers & Sisters.” I said, “Oh, well, who won the theater award? Tarell McCraney for The Brother/Sister Plays, right?” He said, “No, it was a solo show. A Boy and His Soul?” I was like, “That’s me!” It was the biggest shock.BIG GAY SKETCH 1 X390 (PROMO) | ADVOCATE.COMWhen did you decide to be out in your professional life?
I hired a publicist once I got cast in Passing Strange, and one of the first conversations we had was about how I wanted to handle talking about my sexuality. I said, “It’s never been an issue for me. I want to talk about my work, but if something about myself relates to my work, of course I’ll talk about it.” I don’t really talk about relationships — my private life is private — but I’m very open about who I am. When I first moved to New York, I had some colleagues who said I should be my straightest self — whatever that means — when I went into casting offices, but I didn’t want to put on an act of what I thought was heterosexual. I just wanted to be myself, and I’m very grateful because I feel like I’ve been embraced for that.

How do you feel toward closeted actors?
It’s frustrating when I see others who’ve made the decision to hide who they are. The first film I did was Around the Fire [in 1998] — this hippie movie that took place in San Francisco — with Tara Reid, Devon Sawa, and Eric Mabius from Ugly Betty. I remember Tara and Devon were like, “Oh, my God, it’s so cool that you’re out. I don’t know many people who are out.” But it didn’t seem like a choice to me. I just talked about who I was.

Please tell me you went drinking with Tara Reid.
Yes, I did have cocktails with her. Back then she was young, cute, and really enjoying being a Hollywood starlet. She’d say, “Come hang out with us, Colman!” I’d say, “No, I have to go home and learn my lines for tomorrow’s scenes.” She’d say, “Ugh, you can do that on the set. Let’s go drinking!” So we’d make the rounds. We made good use of her per diem — I’ll say that much.