Obie-winning director Robert O'Hara will direct The Public Theater's WILD WITH HAPPY by Colman Domingo. The play explores the surreal, bizarre, and outrageous comedy that lies in dealing with death and healing as a young man named Gil plans to scatter his mother's ashes in the place where she was the most happy.
O'Hara's credits include The Public: Insurrection: Holding History; The Brother/Sister Plays (Part 2), Off-Broadway and regional; In The Continuum, Eclipsed, Antebellum, A Raisin In the Sun, A Life in the Theater, Man in Love, BootyCandy. O'Hara wrote and directed the 2011 film, The Inheritance. He is also the recipient of the Obie, Helen Hayes, NAACP and Oppenheimer Awards. The director chatted with BWW about the upcoming production of WILD WITH HAPPY, a play which takes on a unique yet truly universal subject matter.
Can you tell us a little about the show?
Wild With Happy is a play about a 40-year-old man whose mother has passed away, and it's about what happens when he decides to cremate her body, really the conflict that arises within himself and his family over that decision.
So, would you describe it as a dark comedy?
I would not describe it as a dark comedy, I would describe it as a comedy with dark edges. Because it's really zany and really crazy and outrageous but it's not dark in the same way there's this heavy duty darkness that's over it. I think it's almost a mixture of slapstick and Saturday Night Live and high Drawing Room comedy. It's a comedy about death so I guess it is dark in that way.
But definitely leans more toward the humor than the darkness.
Exactly. I mean it's very powerful and it's a very touching and lovable story, but there is no small amount of zaniness in this play.
Colman Domingo, who is so talented, wrote the play. Is there an interesting dynamic that develops when the playwright is also acting in the show?
Well, one of the plays I directed a few seasons ago was 'In the Continuum', with Nikkole Salter and Danai Gurira and those were two actors who were also playwrights. And I'm a director and a writer so I think I'm used to the sort of hyphenate of the business. And so it is kind of exciting because I know Colman as an actor, I know him as a friend and when he asked me to become involved in the project I said, 'I'm sure it's going to be out of control,' because Colman and myself in the same room is just out of control! And I knew it was going to be very exciting to see what he had done because his other two plays were basically one man shows and this was actually a multi-character play. And it was new to him in terms of writing a multi-character play, so I was very, very excited. I think of Colman as this sort of fool in the most wonderful sense of the word. That he can actually be completely foolish and come off standing on his feet. That's what's wonderful about watching him, that he actually does not care about failing and failing big on stage in order to find something that truly is winning.
Does he mostly keep his acting hat on or does he make suggestions here and there?
I think it's because we were friends before this and he sort of respects me and he sort of asked me to do it. It wasn't like he decided to write a play and act in it and then find a director who would agree to it. He picked me and I think one of the reasons was because I knew how to allow him to be both an actor and a writer and to encourage both. So yes, he will be acting and I will ask his opinion of certain things, and he will come up to me and say his opinion about certain things as a writer. He's very respectful of the other actors. And he is actually the straight man in the play. A lot of the other characters are really the people who are out of control, which is sort of great - to have someone who I know to be completely crazy and outrageous to be playing the straight character in this comedy.
Do you feel the play has relevance to today's times?
There are a few reasons I think this play has relevance. At some point, all of us will have to deal with death of a parent or a relative or a loved one and the madness it involves. And it is an absolute business now, death, and I think it has been for some time. But the idea of the New York artist or the sort of up and comer, to have to go back to his hometown and deal with not only the death of his mother but the craziness of his family, and the business side of death, is very, very relevant to now, especially in these economic times. Also, I think that people don't usually see plays with black protagonists dealing with this type of subject matter. The subject matter usually deals with race and this play does not traffic in that situation. It definitely sort of puts stereotypes on its head, but it's not about the racial issues surrounding death.