“Art is the way we save lives,” actor, playwright, and director Colman Domingo said during his April 13 talk on campus. Domingo, who has appeared in “If Beale Street Could Talk,” “Fear of the Walking Dead,” “Selma,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” and “Lincoln” spoke on campus as part of the Faith and Life Forum.
Started by Reverend Terri Ofori, the forum seeks to “[engage] leading thinkers in our community and across the nation that speak to matters of ultimate concern such as love, peace, social justice, and the intersection of race, religion and gender that affect our community and world,” according to the UC website. Domingo’s talk was the first of what Reverend Ofori hopes will be an ongoing lecture series. She said that Domingo and his focus on spirituality in the arts was a natural choice to kick off the series.
“He was the first person who came to mind. He’s a very good friend of mine. I thought he embodied a person who was very spiritual but also very artistic and so he kind of lives out his art in a socially conscious way,” she said. “The first [talk] was the arts because I’ve been very involved with the arts since I was a teenager… Art expresses the most part of a person. So to me, art is very spiritual.”
Ofori, who has been a longtime friend of and went to high school with Domingo, introduced him before the talk. She said, “Mr. Domingo has been a very empowering and inspiring friend and I want to now welcome him to come forward.”
Prior to the talk, Collegeville’s mayor Reverend Dr. Aidsand Wright-Riggins offered Domingo the key to the Collegeville borough. He said to Domingo, “you have breathed life into so many of us through your art, through your performances, through your very personality.”
Domingo’s talk, titled “Spirituality and the Arts: Using Grief as a Catalyst for Creative Expression and Social Transformation,” centered on how he uses grief and faith to inform his work as an actor, director, and playwright. He shared with the audience that his career “catapulted” after the death of his parents in 2006 and that as a result he feels that death has figured prominently in his work as a writer.
“I knew that art had the power to save and I was really becoming a recipient of that [after the death of my parents] because I put everything into art,” Domingo said. “Death is always living in my work in some way. People are always trying to fight it, run from it, act like it doesn’t exist, but at the end of the day we all know it’s coming and He knows it too, that’s why he’s so funny.”
Domingo attributes the success he found in his career to
the faith and support he received from his parents before their deaths. He believes their dreams for him propelled him forward even after they passed.
“I had faith and I know that it came from my parents. They always believed that I could do anything,” he said. “My mother had a lot of faith in me and she had dreams for me that I didn’t even have for myself.”
His parents’ faith in him propelled him to use his career to create social change. He shared with the audience that early in his career he chose to turn down a role for a character named “Cool-whip Tyrell” and to begin seeking out and even writing parts that better represent African Americans.
“I think why I do films like ‘If Beale Street Could Talk,’ or ‘Birth of a Nation,’ or ‘Lincoln,’ or ‘The Butler’ and why… my career is possibly different than any other actor, it’s because of a couple things. I think I have something special… I know I’m very specific in choosing why I’m doing what I’m doing because I think I want to make a bigger difference in the world,” he said.
This especially figures into his role in “If Beale Street Could Talk.” In the recent adaptation of the James Baldwin novel of the same name, Domingo plays the father of the main female character. During the talk, Domingo shared that many people came
to him and thanked him for his
non-violent representation of
a working class black man. He encouraged young artists in the audience to be equally conscious of their work.
“I’m a man who works around the globe with a big platform, but I’m very much just a hometown boy,” he said.“Anyone in here who’s talented, any theatre student who’s talented, you can get work, but be conscious of the work you’re doing and why you’re doing it.”
Ofori noted that many people who attended the talk found Domingo’s advice and his life story to be “freeing.”
“The word ‘free’ kept coming up. People kept saying I would like to be that free in whatever I’m doing. The way he integrated his spirituality in the arts made them feel very human and it made them want to be that free in whatever they’re doing,” she said. “He took all that sadness and grief and channeled it. I hope people see that they can channel their grief or trauma into something else”
Inspiring people to have faith in themselves is one of Colman’s central goals for his art. “My job is to open you up again to believe in something, to have faith,” he said.
Future talks in the Faith and Life Forum series will center on topics such as faith and technology and faith and medicine. Ofori hopes that the next talk will be sometime next spring.