‘Lights Out’ turns the spotlight on the legacy of entertainer Nat King Cole

A new musical by Philadelphia native Colman Domingo is set in the ‘50s and examines issues of race through the iconic character of Nat King Cole.

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Actor, director and playwright Colman Domingo. (Kyrie Greenberg/WHYY)

Actor, director and playwright Colman Domingo. (Kyrie Greenberg/WHYY)

Colman Domingo is a triple threat, especially this month. The Philadelphia native saw the current season of “Live the Walking Dead” – he plays a main character, Victor Strand – reach its television finale on AMC. In Boston, a new play called “Guide for the Homesick” by Ken Urban, opened under Domingo’s direction. And he’s been flying back and forth to Philadelphia for another new play – one he’s co-written, now in its world premiere at People’s Light in Malvern.

It’s called “Lights Out,” and I was wondering whether Domingo gets time to put the lights out himself when he’s acting, directing and writing simultaneously and in different cities.

“I love everything that I’m doing, so I make time for it,” he said when we talked at People’s Light recently. “But I also get my rest, I spend time with loved ones, I don’t sacrifice those things.”

Domingo, an Overbrook High and Temple grad who received a Tony nomination for his performance in the Broadway musical “The Scottsboro Boys,” got the idea for “Lights Out” four years ago when he participated in a play-writing project at People’s Light. At dinner one evening, the stage company’s producing director Zak Berkman mentioned his fondness for Nat King Cole – the first African-American to have a network show.

Two years later at People’s Light, Domingo and playwright/director Patricia McGregor began writing what would become “Lights Out.” The show, which McGregor directs, is set at Cole’s last NBC program – a run that ended because of racism both real and perceived: No national advertiser would sponsor it even though Cole already was an estimable star. During two seasons, Cole had spent a fortune keeping it going himself.

“I wanted to look at it through the lens of someone in 2017 who’s also an artist and the things that artists must endure,” said Domingo. “I wanted to examine Nat King Cole, not cradle to grave – that wasn’t interesting to me at all. Basically, it’s 15 minutes to show time of his last show, and the thoughts that go through a person’s mind, what they’ve built, where will they land in the history books, what’s underneath it, what’s their inner thoughts and inner monologues.”

Domingo and McGregor put much time in to research Cole’s life, and “we’re going to actually make you think about him in a different way,” Domingo said. “You’re going to have to think about the songs in a different way. You’re going to hear some of your favorite songs, but you’re not going to hear them they way that you thought you were going to hear them. They’re going to have so much more meaning and details, based on this person’s life experiences.”

“Lights Out” stars Dulé Hill – the Broadway actor you may also know from the role of Charles Young on TV’s “The West Wing” – as Nat King Cole, and the show incorporates a swath of songs Cole sang and recorded. Broadway actor Daniel J. Watts plays Sammy Davis Jr.

“Lights Out” runs through Dec. 3 at People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern. For more information: 610-644-3500 or peopleslight.org.


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