“You wrestle with that language. You want it to pull everything out of you, and you also know that it’s going to pour so much into you,” says Colman Domingo of August Wilson. The late playwright, a giant of the American stage, has had a profound impact on the actor’s career. Now Colman has taken on the role of Cutler, the bandleader in the new Netflix adaptation of Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” His connection to the writer’s words aided him greatly in the creation of the character. Watch the exclusive video interview above.
Domingo recalls performing in a stage production of “Fences” as “the first time in my career where I felt that I actually had text… it was about the Black experience in America. It was the first time I saw characters that I really knew and understood.” The actor is continually struck by the ways in which Wilson writes about the American dream through an inherently black lens. The text is multilayered, specific, and requires actors to dig deep to get to the truth of the character. “When you think you know it, you actually don’t know it,” notes Domingo. “It keeps revealing itself.”
For Cutler, Domingo had to be aware of the many instances of code switching that the character must go through. “His whole body had to shift depending on his role and the operating systems in the room,” explains Domingo. Cutler might act free and loose with his bandmates, but his body shrinks when talking to the white record producers. The actor created a special bond with Viola Davis’ Ma Rainey because “they have the longest history with each other” of anyone in the story. So interactions between them are relaxed and showcase a tenderness not seen elsewhere in Cutler’s interactions.
One of the most powerful scenes for Domingo was a confrontation with the late Chadwick Boseman’s Levee. The young trumpeter challenges Cutler’s beliefs and screams at God in a rage. “It’s one of the most incredible moments of my career,” admits Domingo. The performer explains that Boseman stopped speaking about halfway through his monologue and began to turn away. Recognizing that there was something “incredible” in the moment, and fearing that director George C. Wolfe would call cut, Domingo “just started yelling at him: ‘tell me!’” The actor remembers that Boseman was brought back into the moment with a “simmering rage.”
SEE Will ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ outperform ‘Fences’ at the Oscars?
When the scene was over, both men instinctively grabbed each other and sobbed. Neither knew why they did so in the moment. But Domingo believes that “we got to that rare space. That space that you don’t get to that often as actors… where all these things converge and the work has been laid out. And you don’t have to think about it. You just have to give a little bit over of yourself.”
Domingo was recently nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for his performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” He earned Tony Award and Olivier Award nominations for “The Scottsboro Boys.”
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