People handle grief in different ways—some lash out, some hide from their emotions, some break down—but no one can say for certain which is truly the most cathartic. This is the basis behind playwright Colman Domingo’s new comedy, Wild with Happy, currently playing at Center Stage.
The play follows Gil, who is having a tough time of late. His boyfriend left him, his acting career is going nowhere, and oh yeah, his mom just died. Over the course of the play, Gil takes a somewhat turbulent ride through love, loss and learning to dream again.
“The play was inspired by a few events in my life, most importantly the loss of both of my parents in 2006, and all the surreal things that happened around dealing with grief and preparing a body for its eternal rest,” Domingo says. “I was asking many questions to my friends about how they processed the passing of a parent, and [in the script]. I wanted to focus exclusively on the mother/son relationship and I think the process was very healthy.”
Writing the play helped him deal more with his own loss. During the early development of the play, Domingo made a trip that changed both his own grieving and the direction of the play itself.
“I went to Disney World and I had a bit of a moment where I believed in magic again,” he says. “I was watching the fireworks display and put aside all these bad feelings and was believing in all those simple mantras that Disney spells out. I decided that this would be the challenge that my central character would face—how to believe in something again.”
Domingo says everyone believes in something, be it magic or money or even Beyoncé—there’s a force pushing everyone to go on.
“I also believe that that’s the only way you can keep going in the world, otherwise you are a walking corpse,” he says. “The play became an exploration of the beliefs and going back to that childhood center.”
While he doesn’t consider Gil to be completely based on himself, there are definitely aspects of him in the character.
“I think Gil is a possibility of what I could have become in some way. What would have happened if I had shut things down and gone the opposite way in my life, taking a negative route,” he says. “There is a strong essence of myself in Gil but he came more from conversations I have had with peers. I’ve written Gil as a fractured dreamer and I absolutely believe that I am a dreamer, and Gil and I have some of the same questions.”
Even the relationship with his mother in the play has some truth to it, especially the love and closeness, but some of the key moments in the play didn’t really happen.
Another character in the play, Gil’s boisterous Aunt Glo, provides the role of not only a sensitive funeral director, but his outrageous best friend. When Gil is clashing with his grief in the beginning, she is the one who tells him he must act a certain way and he wonders why.
“She is based on a conglomeration of many things, and is the voice of reason and traditional values,” Domingo says. “When I wrote Aunt Glo, I thought she would be a minor character but the more I developed Gil and what he’s fighting against, she kept coming in with more to say and became the antagonist for the play. I love their arguments. As I examine both of these characters, they are both absolutely right most of the time and both absolutely wrong in a way. The play is trying to come to a middle ground and find a new way.”
An accomplished actor, Domingo has appeared on Broadway in Passing Strange, Chicago, Well, and The Scottsboro Boys, for which he received a Tony nod. He’s also appeared in Lee Daniel’s The Butler, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer.
Domingo has played Gil in the two previous productions of Wild with Happy, including being a critical smash at New York’s Public Theater, and earned the 2013 Audelco Award for Best Production and Best Playwright.
Closes June 29, 2014
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He is looking forward to seeing it from the eyes of a playwright for the first time as Forrest McClendon (Domingo’s co-star and fellow Tony nominee for The Scottsboro Boys) takes over the role of Gil.
“He’s such a remarkable actor and we have a long history together, so I am excited about seeing him in the role,” Domingo says. “I love watching actors interpret something, that’s what you want as a playwright, to see someone take a character somewhere that I had no idea of.”
Even though the play is a comedy, Domingo expects plenty of tears and self reflection from the audience members.
“I think my play is designed for the most cynical audience member possible. What I do—and I’m very conscious of this—is I lay questions and challenge that cynic to believe again. We still have room for a transformational even in the later years of our lives. I hope they will take that away and hopefully take a moment to sit and examine the surreal that happens in the process of dealing with grief.”