Colman Domingo wears many hats. As an actor, the out Philadelphia native is known for his role as Victor Strand on AMC’s “Fear the Walking Dead” and for appearances in films including “If Beale Street Could Talk,” “Lincoln” and “Selma.”
On stage, he earned a Tony Award nomination for John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “The Scottsboro Boys” and has played several engagements as Billy Flynn in the long-running Broadway revival of “Chicago.”
Also a prolific playwright, Domingo netted a Barrymore Award nomination for the premiere production of his play “Lights Out: Nat ‘King’ Cole” at People’s Light in Malvern. This month, he returns to the Main Line venue to direct his play “Dot,” which centers on a West Philadelphia woman’s experiences with dementia and the ways in which her children shoulder the responsibilities of caregiving.
“Dot” debuted at the prestigious Humana Festival in Louisville, Kentucky, and has been staged in New York, Atlanta and Baltimore, among other locations. But this production will mark Domingo’s first in the director’s chair.
“I decided a long time ago that I didn’t particularly like to direct my own work, because I like the collaboration aspect of it all,” Domingo told PGN.
However, Domingo’s positive experiences working at People’s Light — and the draw of the story’s local connections — persuaded him to take the helm.
“I developed such a great relationship with [People’s Light], and I thought they should do ‘Dot,’” he said. “It’s such a Philadelphia story, and I wanted it to be done with so much love. I felt this company would treat it with so much respect. And through that, I thought I wanted to direct this production, because it’s so close to home. I’ve never performed in the city or had my plays done here, so I thought it would be a great opportunity for a coming-home story.”
Domingo sought to extend the feeling of Philadelphia pride by casting local actors in a number of key roles.
“That was important to me,” he said. “I wanted my leads to be based in Philadelphia. I want this production to have a real Philadelphia flavor to it.”
Several weeks into rehearsals, Domingo has found the experience of shaping his own play differs from staging the work of another playwright.
“There are times when I take off my playwright hat, and I tell my actors not to look at me as the playwright,” Domingo said. “They need the freedom to question the work, to not be beholden to lines, so that I can be held accountable as a collaborator and a director.”
Domingo began crafting the script for “Dot” after conversations with several friends, each of whom was caring for a mother with Alzheimer’s disease. He wove together elements of each story, along with fictional aspects, to create what he calls “a portrait of our humanity.”
“One of my friends told me she was at the hospital with her mom, and she felt like she was trying to get the memories out of her so that she could pass them along to her son,” Domingo said. “Because if she didn’t, no one would know they were here. It sort of broke my heart. Another time, I was in the kitchen of a different friend’s house, and her mom kept asking me questions again and again. I realized I was right in the middle of finding out the reality of a family dealing with dementia, and I realized I never saw a work about this topic that was from an African American perspective. I was interested in writing that story — a family story, about how we care for ourselves and care for each other.”
Domingo operates in a tradition of playwrights who draw universality out of specific commonplace experiences. “There’s an immigrant story in there, and there’s a single-woman story,” he said. “There’s a gay couple at the heart of the play, and there’s a woman who’s aging. ... I like to deal with a small neighborhood and the microcosm of one house, but, embedded in that, is the macrocosm of America.”
Working at People’s Light has shown Domingo his hometown from a new perspective. After graduating from Overbrook High School and Temple University, he moved to San Francisco and then New York, where he cut his teeth as a stage actor. He now resides primarily in Los Angeles.
While growing up in West Philly, Domingo said he did not conceive of theater as a possible profession. As a teenager, he participated in a summer program at the now-defunct Society Hill Playhouse, mostly as a way to combat his own shyness. It wasn’t until he moved to San Francisco that he realized his early experiences had planted a seed that would grow into a thriving, all-encompassing career in the arts.
“I did not go to theater growing up, and people who made their living doing theater did not exist in my universe,” he said. “But when I got to San Francisco, it was the thing I sought from the moment I was there. I thought, let me go back to that thing that made me feel so good at the Society Hill Playhouse. That’s how I developed my career.”
“Dot” runs Sept. 18-Oct. 20 at People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern. For tickets and information, visit peopleslight.org or call (610) 644-3500.