Out television and stage actor and Philadelphia native Colman Domingo has partnered with acclaimed theater-maker Patricia McGregor to co-author a stage drama exploring issues of race and the American Dream. “Lights Out: Nat ‘King’ Cole” runs Oct. 11-Dec. 3 at People’s Light and Theatre Company.
The show imagines Cole reckoning with the demise of his televised variety show after it fails to attract a national sponsor. As his final Christmastime broadcast approaches, Cole weighs the advice of his friend Sammy Davis, Jr. to “go out with a bang,” which goes against his producer’s wishes to say goodbye with grace.
Unless you’ve been living without access to social media, a newspaper or a television for a while, we don’t have to tell you that a show about a high-profile black entertainer trying to decide whether to use his platform to speak truth to power and address issues of inequality is suddenly a more relevant topic to contemplate today than it was last year — or even two or three weeks ago.
“I think we’ve been writing with a sense of urgency,” Domingo said about the relevance of Cole’s story to current events. “They only lens that I thought I can write through is the lens of the subversion of thinking of things in America right now — to deconstruct an icon and deconstruct ideas about race and entertainers and how a person stands in all that grace. How was it possible for someone as iconic as Nat King Cole to stand in so much grace with so many things that he was up against? It is looking back at it in the narrative from 2017 and how we illuminate these things from the past.”
Domingo added that he isn’t attempting to provide a comprehensive biography about Cole as much as he is trying to whet the audience’s appetite about certain aspects of his life and his struggle.
“I’m not trying to give everyone everything,” he said. “I think if I can hack open your mind to learn more, not only about Nat King Cole, but questions about entertainment and race and to see how it echoes now and the work we need to do, it’s hopefully just an eye-opening.”
Domingo said the research he did about Cole’s life and career in preparation for writing “Lights Out” was certainly an eye-opening experience for him.
“It’s like going into the looking glass,” he said. “You keep uncovering things that you thought about Nat King Cole, maybe if it’s even just about the music. I was just surprised by many things. Some of the articles that we stumbled upon in Ebony Magazine in 1957, where he would talk about the ideas surrounding why he believes a show like his in 1957 didn’t have a chance but he had an opportunity to move the needle … you get an idea of how aware he is and the way that Madison Avenue works and the pull of the South. You get an idea of what he was struggling with but also how he was very much an activist by being so dignified. I think those are questions we all have about how do you resist and activate change and be an agent of change? Sometimes it’s with our fist up in the air. Sometimes it’s with pen to paper. Which one is right? Which one is best? What I’m discovering is all are ways of activism. It’s really looking at the man who was a gentle being in this world, such a shining example of activism and resistance through his dignity. Even now, the argument we’re having about taking a knee and what it represents is a quiet and dignified way to resist and to ask for change.”
Domingo seems to find himself with a lot of projects that address timely societal issues. He’s currently a regular cast member of the popular horror drama “Fear the Walking Dead,” which he said, like “Lights Out,” explores issues that are making headlines.
“It’s doing the same thing. I’m attracted to things like that. ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ is a show that is examining our humanity. It’s less about the infected walkers and more about who we become during a disaster. And boy, have we had our share of disasters these days. With all the hurricanes and earthquakes and bombings, terrorist acts and shootings in America, it’s all doing the same thing: It’s saying, who are we when the chips are down and who do we become? That’s an extraordinary question.”
People’s Light presents “Lights Out: Nat ‘King’ Cole” Oct. 11-Dec. 3, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern. For more information, visit www.peopleslight.org.