Now playing downtown at the Public Theater, Wild with Happy is a wacky and outrageously funny take on death and grieving written by Colman Domingo, who also plays the lead role in the play. The actor-playwright is best known to New York audiences for his multiple roles in Stew’s Passing Strange and for his Tony-nominated turn in Kander and Ebb’s musical The Scottsboro Boys. He also wrote and performed A Boy and His Soul, a solo work which premiered off-Broadway in 2010. In his new play, Domingo plays Gil, a struggling New York actor who returns to his home in Philadelphia to arrange for his mother’s funeral. He’s flooded with memories of his mother when she was alive and has to face the admonitions of her sister, his aunt Glo (both parts played to the hilt by Sharon Washington), who has her own ideas about proper rites for the dead. With the help of his friend Mo (Maurice McRae) and an unusually attentive undertaker (Korey Jackson), Gil eventually finds resolution and his deceased mother gets a fairytale send-off, courtesy of Disney.
The zany goings-on in Wild with Happy are overseen by Robert O’Hara, a director with a taste for the wild and outrageous himself. O’Hara, who’s also a playwright, made a splash when he was in his mid 20s with Insurrection: Holding History, which he directed at the Public Theater in 1996. An epic tale about a gay black college grad student who time-travels back to the days of the Nat Turner slave rebellion in 1831 more than lived up to its billing as “Roots meets The Wizard of Oz.” O’Hara spoke to us recently about his collaboration with Domingo on Wild with Happy.
How did this project come about?
Colman and I are old friends. As an actor he worked for me and did a couple of my shows, early in my career. We have grown closer over time and have the same circle of friends, and we have always said that we should work together at some point. He had written 20 pages of this play and was invited to Sundance. He called me up and asked me if I would go with him and help him develop the play. Within three weeks we came up with the first draft. Two of other actors who are still in the play, Sharon [Washington] and Maurice [McRae], were also up at Sundance so it was nice to have it grow organically in the room. After a few more workshops in California and then at Dartmouth, the Public said they wanted to do it. It was a pretty clean development. It didn’t take years and years and we didn’t have to jump through a lot of hoops. We were actually given the artistic license to really go for it. So it was a very wonderful process.
How did you decide on the tone for what most people would not consider a funny subject?
The idea of Robert O’Hara—if I can talk about myself in the third person—and Colman Domingo collaborating, it would most likely be a complete full mess of craziness. And although we have both done very serious work, I think together we really wanted to laugh. Colman and Sharon and Maurice had all lost their mothers—and Colman and Sharon had lost their fathers as well. I had lost neither parent. So the tone of the piece was always supposed to be heightened, because it would be normal and easy to do something maudlin about death. Wild with Happy isn’t necessarily about death itself, but the processes that go on after someone dies. It deals with so many different things that come into your life once your mother dies. You must deal with a bunch of relatives, you must deal with a bunch of traditions, and you must deal with funerals and businesses in a very different way than before, especially if you’re the only child or the oldest child or someone who’s supposed to be in charge of things. And that can be quite hilarious. The excitement was that we got to challenge each other. I told Colman that he should really let his imagination go and so then his writing began to grow and become bigger and more flamboyant and fabulous.
You both play with stereotypes—gayness and blackness—in a provocative way in your work…
I think that Colman has found a unique take on the intersection of sexuality, race, and human behavior. There’s really no conversation around sexuality in play. It’s just a given that the character is homosexual and that leads to the type of interaction that he has with others. I think that idea that we don’t directly address sexuality makes it actually much more fun. It takes it out of being some soap opera around those issues.
In terms of both your and Domingo’s work, would you say there’s a direct line that goes back to former Public Theater artistic director George C. Wolfe and his 1986 play The Colored Museum?
Oh, absolutely. George Wolfe is a fucking genius. The Colored Museum was a turning point in theater history, and certainly in my knowledge of theater history. It allowed, not just African-American writers and artists, but actually the theater community to see a different side of comedy from African-Americans on the stage. I think that in terms of stand-up, Moms Mabley and Richard Pryor, their comedy had already been pushing the envelope. But in terms of theater, George really did push the envelope so far that it burst open, and I think Colman and myself came out of that. I gravitated toward George because of the type of work that I wanted to do. He gave me my start with Insurrection; he allowed me to write and direct my first play at the Public Theater. Colman gravitated toward me because of the type of work that he could do and that people wanted him to do. We found each other because we had no other choice. So it was a natural order of things that he would think of me for this piece.
I understand you’re currently working on commissions for Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company and Washington D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, and you’re also directing Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop for Houston’s Alley Theatre and Arena Stage in D.C. How do you keep the balance between directing and writing?
I’ve always said that I’m not a writer who directs or a director who writes. I’m a writer-director. It’s two different skills. When I’m doing one I enjoy it fully, and when I’m doing the other I enjoy that fully. So they really don’t clash for me and I really don’t like one more. Directing is a very public activity in that you have to be in front of people. And sometimes I simply want to be in a room by myself creating something and I love when I have that chance.
Now that the play is up on its feet, how do you think Wild with Happy works for an audience?
As we got into previews, I actually got to see what we’ve done. Otherwise, you’re sort of drowning inside of it. We built all these pieces moment to moment and now I’m getting to enjoy the whole body of the play and it’s just so incredibly joyful to watch. What I find that lands is just the brutal honesty of life and the joy of laughter clashing up against each other. There are facts about life and death that are simply funny. And one of the only ways to get through certain things is to laugh. I have not heard of a title more brilliant in recent history than Wild with Happy. Just the idea of being wild with happy is so tremendous.