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Celebrating Success: From 'hood to Hollywood with actor Colman Domingo

WEST Philadelphia-born and -raised, Colman Domingo makes no pretense of passing as a prince of Bel-Air. No need to; at 43, he's more a poobah of film and stage.

Actor Colman Domingo.
Actor Colman Domingo.Read more

WEST Philadelphia-born and -raised, Colman Domingo makes no pretense of passing as a prince of Bel-Air. No need to; at 43, he's more a poobah of film and stage.

And he's got the credits to prove it, from Steven Spielberg's recent, Oscar-winning "Lincoln" to Spike Lee's "Passing Strange," a 2009 film based on a play that Domingo appeared in and won an off-Broadway Obie Award for.

You'll also see him this fall in Lee Daniels' "The Butler," about White House butler Eugene Allen.

But, as a young man growing up in our city, where he was born in 1969, Domingo felt dominated by diminished expectations. In 1991, he made the move that would help define him as an artist, dropping out of Temple University somewhat shy of his degree. It was time, the 21-year-old journalism major decided, to make headlines of his own out west.

"I had only taken one acting class before I moved to San Francisco," he said.

Crammed into a studio apartment with several roommates, he finally found room to grow in a region that was "more open-minded" than his old 'hood. It was a place where being gay was accepted, and "I could explore my sexuality, redefine who I was as a person."

What he was more than anything was fulfilled. "I was never more happy in my life," he said.

The idea of breaking with the familiar and striking out for parts unknown in order to discover yourself is a life lesson he likes to share.

"When I go back home to visit," he mused with a chuckle, "I try to shake things up in my house and neighborhood."

He urges his two brothers, who still live here, to take wing, he said. "I tell them there's more to life than what they're exploring."

Baring his 'Soul'

While he has many film, stage and TV credits, Domingo, now living in New York, perhaps deserves most credit for what he accomplished using his own life as soul music for the stage in "A Boy and His Soul," a sort of "street theater" about his youth, a time when 52nd and Pine was a hangout with little to hang onto.

When the piece debuted in New York in 2009, The New York Times called Domingo "a blazingly charismatic performer."

"If the impoverished black background in which Mr. Domingo grew up gives the coming-out story only a modestly new slant, his gift for sharply funny characterization definitely enlivens the journey," a reviewer said.

Domingo is bringing "A Boy and His Soul" to the Philadelphia Theatre Company in May 2014.It will mark the first time that he's acted in his hometown, though he is one of five writers doing a residency in playwriting until the end of the year at People's Light and Theatre Company, in Malvern. Domingo is on the faculty of The National Theater Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, according to his website, and has lectured at various schools, including Community College of Philadelphia.

"I want others to find their way, like I did," he said.

Domingo snared the flamboyant role of Billy Flynn in the long-running Broadway revival of "Chicago," starring in two different stints in 2010 and 2011. He was nominated for a Tony for his part in the original production of "The Scottsboro Boys" three years ago.

What's the allure of these Kander and Ebb musicals for him? "Because they're about ordinary people in extraordinary situations," he said. "They are people who prove to be worldly and intelligent."

Domingo has been careful in his choices as a performer. "I have been constantly shaping and reshaping my career," he said. "I laid a foundation by doing respectful work in all media. And I am happy with what I have done."

So he's moved forward with care. But he hasn't necessarily played it safe.

"I am proud being an artist who takes risks, who would walk off a cliff artistically," he said. "I won't settle for commercial reasons."

Domingo continues to create roles for himself as well. His latest play, "Wild With Happy," about a 40-year-old Philadelphian grappling with his mother's death, opened last fall at the Joseph Papp Public Theater, in New York. The Times praised this one, too, calling it "sweet, funny and forgivably sentimental."

So does that title describe Domingo? He paused, then laughed. "I still aspire to be that one day," he said.