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Colman Domingo on The Butler and His London Debut in A Boy and His Soul & The Scottsboro Boys

Colman Domingo on The Butler and His London Debut in A Boy and His Soul & The Scottsboro Boys
Colman Domingo in 'A Boy and His Soul'
'I thought ['The Scottsboro Boys'] was one of the most brilliant pieces of theater I had ever read.'

Rare is the Broadway performer who lands two London gigs in a single season, but Tony nominee Colman Domingo is celebrating his first-ever trip to the U.K. with back-to-back runs of his 2009 solo play A Boy and His Soul (through September 21 at the Tricycle Theatre) and the U.K. premiere of Kander & Ebb’s The Scottsboro Boys, which starts previews at the Young Vic on October 18. On top of that, the 43-year-old actor and writer is drawing attention for his performance as the supercilious chief White House butler in the hit film Lee Daniels’ The Butler. How did all this good fortune converge at once? Domingo tells all, in characteristically expansive form.

How does it feel to be performing two shows in a row on your very first trip to London?
I feel very blessed to be the eye of the storm! [Laughs.] While I was negotiating the deal for Scottsboro Boys at the Young Vic, I had met [Tricycle artistic director] Indhu [Rubasingham] and we got talking about me coming to the Tricycle as a way of introducing myself to London audiences with a solo piece that also says something about me as a human being. I thought, wow, what a wonderful opportunity that would be.

How are British audiences responding to A Boy and His Soul?
They are absolutely getting it. The special thing about doing it here is that I chose to work with an English director, Titas Halder, who helped shape the piece so that it almost feels like something new. We examined it with an eye toward British audiences to make sure they get the gist of what is being said even if they don’t get every reference. We're not dumbing the material down or marginalizing it in any way. So far, [audiences] have been rising to their feet. I haven’t in any way been made to feel like a foreigner.

A Boy and His Soul is rooted in your own story of growing up and coming out as a gay man in Philadelphia, set against the soul music of the era. Could the show be performed by another actor?
This feels like a piece any man could do—and possibly even a woman—and it’s been crafted with that in mind. It’s significant, for instance, that the character in the play isn’t named Colman, which should help anyone who’s interested to think of it as a solo play for a certain kind of actor. I look forward to someone else telling the story.

You’re about to start rehearsing The Scottsboro Boys with director Susan Stroman, who is just as busy as you are [helming new shows Big Fish and Bullets Over Broadway].
Stro is doing a lot this season, which is so awesome. I like to think that people like us attract each other in that way; we like to stay busy.

What’s your feeling about how London audiences will respond to The Scottsboro Boys?
British playgoers strike me as tremendously savvy and intelligent, and I think they are going to receive The Scottsboro Boys as something new and fresh. It may help, too, that in this country audiences don’t have the baggage that Americans carry about the shame of our horrific history when it comes to racial injustice; no one’s walking in with that in London.

Were you surprised when you first discovered that The Scottsboro Boys takes the form of a minstrel show?
When you open a script that has the names John Kander and Fred Ebb on it, you know from the outset that these are not people who are callous about what they do; there’s a reason behind everything. In fact, I thought it was one of the most brilliant pieces of theater I had ever read. The surprise to me was that there was any controversy whatsoever [during the 2011 Broadway premiere].

Your Scottsboro theater is just minutes away from the Old Vic, where Vanessa Redgrave, your colleague from Lee Daniels’ The Butler, is starring in Much Ado About Nothing.
It’s funny, I just left a note for her and [Much Ado co-star] James Earl Jones at the Old Vic stage door suggesting that we all grab lunch. I didn’t have any scenes [in The Butler] with Vanessa, but we did spend a wonderful evening together at the home of one our producers, and James Earl has been a wonderful supporter of mine. He saw me in Scottsboro in New York and also in [Domingo’s more recent off-Broadway play] Wild With Happy.

You must be thrilled at the worldwide success of The Butler, in which you share scenes with Forest Whitaker and Cuba Gooding Jr.
I can honestly say that The Butler, from the very outset, felt like an event: All of us knew it was something special—we were telling a story that hadn’t been told before and that had to be told. Many of these Academy Award-winning actors have one scene, but the point is that everyone wanted to be a part of it. It wasn’t about the size of the role but about the size of the piece.

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