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Nanny Statement Colman Domingo directs Lisa Ramirez's "Exit Cuckoo," which asks the question: Who's raising our kids?
Actor/director Colman Domingo had seen his share of performance art and solo performance, certainly. But until he was cast as ultra-edgy Berlin performance artist Mr. Venus in the rock-musical sensation Passing Strange, he hadn’t delved much into that world himself. Now, after his immersion in it—capped by his indelible delivery of Mr. Venus’ disturbing mantra, “What’s inside is just a lie!”—Domingo has embraced the solo performance, both for himself and for actor/writer colleague Lisa Ramirez. Her solo show about life as a New York nanny, Exit Cuckoo, begins performances at Theatre Row’s Clurman Theatre on Apr. 17.

“In my research for Mr. Venus, I looked at artists like Lisa Kron, John Leguizamo,” says Domingo, whose own solo show, A Boy and His Soul, is slated to bow Off-Broadway next fall. “What I took from them is that you have to be bold and brazen in the convention you’re setting up, of you being the storyteller.” In learning this lesson, Mr. Venus was a great teacher: “He was so raw and bold and in-your-face—as a performance artist, he didn’t care what the audience thought of him. He was not so focused on the audience enjoying his work; he was just committing to his art.”

Lest that sound like a recipe for work that’s unwatchably aggressive, what Domingo took from Mr. Venus’ self-confidence was invaluable as a primer for even the most agreeable solo show.

“With a solo show, you always feel like you have to justify your presence, like, ‘I want them to love me,’ ” says Domingo. The solo performer, Domingo says, can’t apologize but must “just be committed to the story you’re telling.” He found Ramirez to be a receptive student of this approach, because, as Domingo explains, “Ever since she was a younger actress, she’s played older women. So she has such a sense of herself. She’s not asking the audience to like her, she’s just asking them to listen to her story.”

Ramirez’s story more or less dropped into her lap. A Bay Area transplant who came to New York seeking acting work, she found herself in the familiar situation of looking for a side job to tide her over between performing gigs.

For years, then, Ramirez worked as a nanny for high-income kids, trying to keep her schedule—and her dignity—intact along the way, with mixed success. In Exit Cuckoo, she portrays all the characters, from outspoken fellow nannies to confused children to wine-addled Upper East Sides housewives, with only minor changes in costume. An earlier version, at last year’s Midtown Theatre Festival, involved more elaborate costume changes, not unlike Sarah Jones’ Bridge & Tunnel. But Domingo helped steer Ramirez toward a more minimal aesthetic, closer to Anna Deavere Smith’s.

“She did do different costume pieces before, but now we’re putting the focus even more on Lisa as the performer,” Domingo explains. “So a scarf becomes a towel. It’s a bit more suggestive than literal, and it’s the same with our set and lighting design. We’re approaching it like Shakespeare, where if we say we’re in Verona, we’re in Verona. That has always been my aesthetic, and it was true of Passing Strange, as well: Hopefully my voice and my body and the text can set up the world we’re in.”

That world includes the kitchens and parks of New York’s well-to-do, and the portrait Ramirez paints of the privileged class’s approach to child-rearing and domestic help is not always pretty. That doesn’t mean, though, that the play is meant to be a one-dimensional indictment.

“That’s the trick with these characters—we have to establish them in a few sentences, and we’re making sure that we stay out of the way,” Domingo says. “Certainly we have a point of view, but we’re both very sensitive. We want to hear their stories, and we don’t want to shut any groups out. To say that we’re making a statement about Upper East Side women—well, we want to portray with as much heart and sincerity as the other characters, and you can walk away and decide for yourself.”

Still, it’s a subject matter that is likely to hit close to home for many theatregoers. As Domingo puts it, the theme is, “Who raising our children? Is it Barney, or Consuela, or you?” Such a direct question, so relevant to the lives of busy New Yorkers, evokes comparisons with another recent solo show: Danny Hoch’s Taking Over, which dealt with the fraught issue of gentrification—and duly angered many critics and theatregoers in the process.

“We’re both huge fans of Danny,” Domingo points out. “But what he did was that he made sure his point of view was deadset out there, stated as such. Danny aligned himself with himself, not with the audience. That’s great in a way—getting people incensed, because they should be. But that’s something Lisa and I are not doing. Even the way Lisa reveals her character—she’s revealed through other characters. Her character is more trying to figure this out.”

Domingo says he’s sometimes stopped on the street by people who recognize him from Passing Strange.

“They shout to me, ‘What’s inside is just a lie!’ And sometimes it takes me a second.” We have to ask, though: Is what’s inside really just a lie?

“No, what’s inside is the truth!” Domingo says with a laugh, then adds: “Although it depends on the kind of mood you’re in.”

Click here for more information about Exit Cuckoo.