Colman Domingo's 'Dot' at NCTC

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday March 1, 2022
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(L to R)The Shealy siblings, Donnie (Marcus J. Paige), Shelly (Kimberly Ridgeway) and Averie (Brittany Nicole Sims) in 'Dot.'
(L to R)The Shealy siblings, Donnie (Marcus J. Paige), Shelly (Kimberly Ridgeway) and Averie (Brittany Nicole Sims) in 'Dot.'

Colman Domingo got his first ever stage role at the New Conservatory Theatre Center. In 1991, while working server and bartending gigs as a recent arrival to San Francisco, he joined the cast of the Conservatory's touring show, The Inner Circle, which brought a teen-centered look at AIDS to high schools throughout the Bay Area.

It was the start of an often brilliant, always questing career through which Domingo has carved out opportunities to express himself on stage and screen, not only as a performer (including stand-out roles in Passing Strange and The Scottsboro Boys on Broadway; Fear the Walking Dead, The Big Gay Sketch Show and Euphoria on television; and If Beale Street Could Talk and Zola on the big screen) but as a director, producer and writer as well.

Playwright/actor Colman Domingo  

It's the latter that will bring the Philadelphia-born, now Los Angeles-based Domingo back to the New Conservatory next week, as the first-ever San Francisco production of his play, Dot, officially opens a run through April 3.

"This is very important for me," said the 52-year-old Domingo in a recent telephone interview with the Bay Area Reporter during which he discussed the local theater scene's impact on his development as an artist.

"I honestly first came to San Francisco on a whim," recalls Domingo, noting that while he had recently graduated from Temple University with a journalism degree, he had no particular career goal at the time. "One of my good buddies had left school the year before to go out to San Francisco, and he would just talk to me as if it was utopia, a place where you could just fly your freak flag. He was so elated over it and just encouraged me to come."

"I had taken one acting class as an elective," Domingo recalls of his college days. "It felt good to me, and my teacher was encouraging. He said he thought I had something, maybe I should consider pursuing it further. But I didn't think I had the personality. I was very quiet and bookish."

But from the time he took on his initial role at NCTC, Domingo was swept into a San Francisco theater scene that was open-minded, experimental and encouraged him to explore his creativity.

"I always tell people that it was like being in an incubator," he said. "I was allowed to cross-pollinate. I was always asking questions, which led to people asking me to direct readings and to write."

My comrades
Domingo fondly recalls his collaborations with fellow fledgling artists —"my comrades" he calls them— who have gone on to become leading lights of the Bay Area stage community, including Margo Hall, Danny Scheie and Sean San Jose, who he says he still speaks with by phone several times a week. When San Jose was recently appointed as Magic Theater's new artistic director, Domingo eagerly joined the organization's board of directors. He's even bringing San José on board as a story consultant for Dot.

Juanita Harris in 'Dot.'  (Source: Lois Tema)

It was Doug Holsclaw, then artistic director at Theatre Rhinoceros, who encouraged the inquisitive Domingo to develop his first major work as a writer and dramaturg, giving him encouragement and studio space to create 1998's Up Jumped Springtime. Domingo also performed in the show, a warmly reviewed adaptation of pieces from Essex Hemphill's groundbreaking Brother to Brother anthology of writings by gay Black men.

When he eventually moved to New York after a decade in San Francisco, Domingo says, "I had to take the Bay Area ethos with me: It was always about the work and the work ethic. Nobody put limits on me because I was Black or 6' 2" or openly gay. The only thing I was limited by was my ability. Let's say that in other places I had to introduce those ideas a bit more."

Dot, which Domingo originally drafted over a focused three-week period in 2015, is the touching but surprisingly funny story of family holiday gathering during which the three adult children of the titular matriarch must come to terms with her worsening Alzheimer's disease. In an antic tangle of narrative threads, Dot's son, Donnie, and his husband are struggling with marital difficulties, her high-strung younger daughter is lamenting lost YouTube stardom, and a neighborhood friend is having a soap operatic crisis of her own.

"There's a lot going on," acknowledges Domingo about the play, which was a New York Times Critics' Pick in its 2016 Vineyard Theater debut. So much so, that AMC Networks —home to Domingo's Fear the Walking Dead— is adapting it as a six-episode series called West Philly, Baby, planned to air next spring.

Domingo, who will write, direct and executive produce, says that despite the much bigger budgets allotted to television series, "I'm calling on a lot of the conventions of theater in the show —tricks of lighting, scenic design, layered visuals to suggest the point-of-view of someone with Alzheimer's. I come from a basement theater background— making magic out of a tube of Chapstick and a sheet of toilet paper."

Dot by Colman Domingo at The New Conservatory Theatre Center. March 4 through April 3. $25-$65. 25 Van Ness Ave.

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