Colman Domingo is special guest at the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s 2021 virtual fundraiser on March 13. (Courtesy Danny Clinch)

Colman Domingo is special guest at the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s 2021 virtual fundraiser on March 13. (Courtesy Danny Clinch)

Colman Domingo recalls inspirational years in The City

Screen and stage actor, director, producer and writer joins SF Mime Troupe benefit

These days, Colman Domingo is riding high with high-profile acting gigs on TV’s “Euphoria” and “Fear of the Walking Dead” and in the critically acclaimed movie “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

But the jobs represent just a fraction of the creativity he’s displayed over a 30-year career as an actor, director, host, educator, producer and writer in projects that have taken him across genres and the world.

Having spent a formative decade in the 1990s in San Francisco, the Southern California resident – who’s the keynote speaker at the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s virtual fundraiser “The Red Star at the End of the Tunnel” this weekend – has maintained a strong connection to The City.

“I still have my name on a lease there on Valencia Street,” says Domingo, 51, mentioning that he noticed major changes the last time he was in the Bay Area several years ago to appear at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s gala.

“The Mission turned into something I didn’t recognize,” he says. “There were many more black cars dropping people off,” adding that when he lived there it was filled with his kin, lesbians and Latinos.

Domingo’s lengthy resume includes jobs with virtually every Bay Area theater group – from the queer troupes Theatre Rhinoceros and New Conservatory Theatre Center to TheatreWorks, “all of the Shakespeare Festivals, especially Cal Shakes,” to Berkeley Rep and American Conservatory Theater.

Interestingly, he never performed onstage with the Mime Troupe, but spent a “good” year in the mid-1990s teaching and directing preteens participating in the group’s Youth Education Project. Not only did he instill acting techniques, he found it rewarding to go over skills such as conflict resolution.

“If you work with preteens, you have to be honest with them,” he says, noting that he found the experience to be very helpful in his later career.

He says, “I’m going to say a few words, a few inspired words and words of support” at the March 13 fundraiser – which also will celebrate 25 years of the Youth Theater Project with performances and reminiscences.

Although Domingo — whose unique family name reflects ancestry from Belize (he dealt with his background in “A Boy and His Soul,” the first solo play he wrote) — was born and grew up in Philadelphia, he still considers the Bay Area home, and inspirational.

He talks to his old friend and cohort Sean San Jose, co- founder of the multi-cultural ensemble Campo Santo several times per week; and says even though he’s now in Hollywood, “I still act as if I were in the basement of Theatre Rhinoceros. I’m still trying to discover and play and be creative in my choices.”

His Bay Area colleagues, he says, also are “multi-hyphenites” who act, direct, produce and write as he does. He likes to call himself “a creator” who loves switching platforms, from dramas to musicals to stage and screen, and when he says “I do do it all” and “I’m having a great time,” he’s sincere.

And though he hit on Broadway in “Chicago” and “The Scottsboro Boys,” for which he got a Tony Award nomination, and in prestige movies “The Butler,” “Selma” and “If Beale Street Could Talk,” he describes the first 20 years of his career as a series of ups and downs.

“When I was on Broadway in ‘Passing Strange,’ I had to borrow $150,” he says.

Currently enjoying rave reviews for his role as a trombone player in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” he calls the movie, based on playwright August Wilson’s drama about a music session headed by a Black gay blues singer (played by Viola Davis), a “story that speaks to today.”

“She was such a bold figure; in 1927, she was saying, ‘Pay me what I’m worth,’” says Domingo.

It’s a problem that persists, he adds, recalling numerous times through the years being the only Black voice at the table while all the people in power working on a project were white, or dejectedly watching artistic directors make six figures on the backs of everyone else.

“There was a joke that you could only do one Black play per year, and it had to be in February,” he says, adding that while systemic racism undeniably remains, there’s also hope: “We‘re a bridge for change, we can make changes.”

To that end, he launched “Bottomless Brunch at Colman’s” during the pandemic to bring people together. Not a celebrity vehicle, the AMC show from his home features Domingo and big-time guests like Common, Barry Jenkins, Niecy Nash and Anika Noni Rose virtually sharing drinks and having fun chats.

That same good cheer comes through in Domingo’s lightning-fast response to the query “What are you looking forward to?” and he says, “Hugging as many people as I can.”

“The Red Star at the End of the Tunnel” starts at noon March 13; to register, visit https://www.sfmt.org/ or eventbrite.com.

lkatz@sfexaminer.com

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