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The actress plays another multilayered part written by her pal Colman Domingo
Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages' ongoing series on actors and how they create their roles
When asked if she is playwright Colman Domingo's muse, actress Sharon Washington lets out a chuckle that lights up the room -- even from over the phone. "It's hard for me to say that myself!" she says. "But Colman has said it in print, so I guess it's true! I joke all the time that I have to be careful about what I say around him because it will end up on stage."
In Domingo's new dramedy Dot, now at the Vineyard Theatre, she plays Shelly, the smart but stressed-out daughter of the title character, a formerly strong matriarch stricken with dementia. It's the second plum part he's written expressly for her, after the Public Theater's Wild With Happy. And yet performing, not playwriting, is what initially brought these two together.
"I can't remember when he wasn't in my life, but we only met in 2010 doing The Scottsboro Boys," Washington says, referring to the Tony-nominated musical they co-starred in, which began Off-Broadway at the Vineyard. "Colman began writing Wild With Happy while we were on the road with the show in Minneapolis. He would say, 'Come down and read this monologue!' And then he started writing it on me, and we had these great brainstorming discussions. Now my voice is kind of in his head, which is a great place to be."
With Shelly, Domingo didn't give his pal an easy character to play. In addition to having a high-powered job as a lawyer and being a single mom, she's the primary caretaker of her ailing mother, who's still living in the Philadelphia home Shelly and her siblings grew up in. All the pressure is getting to her, and in the first scene, she and her mother have some heartrending fights over seemingly inconsequential things, like breakfast. In lesser hands, Shelly might come off as simply strident. But Washington is careful to let humor and feelings of helplessness humanize her, making her struggle all the more sympathetic as she and her family gather to celebrate what may very well be their last Christmas with Dot.
"When I'm just yelling, exasperated with my mother in the beginning, I can feel the audience go, 'Whoa!'" she says. "But later, I feel them leaning forward and starting to understand her, which is very refreshing. Colman had several very close friends who were dealing with loved ones with Alzheimer's, including my husband. He said he couldn't believe their stories because they seemed so harsh, but really funny, too. Except not. And he wanted to find out what that was about. My mother-in-law, who passed away last year, had dementia. Colman would hear what my husband was going through, how he would lash out because his mother's condition would literally drive him to the place it drives my character, Shelly, when she says, 'I'm going to light my hair on fire!' The disease changes their personality, but it changes yours, too. It hits you at the emotional level and you snap. That has creeped into Shelly. She's a lawyer, she likes to fix things, but she can't fix this. It's unimaginable."
Because of its unsentimental depiction of how dementia impacts not just patients but their loved ones, Dot has been attracting audiences who have experience with the disease, including caretakers and sufferers. At a talkback the other night, Washington got "the best compliment" when a caregiver said, "I completely understood Shelly."
The actress adds, "Every day I feel so honored and privileged to tell this story. We had [famous restaurateur and personality] B. Smith and her husband, Dan Gasby, come recently. She's suffering with early-onset Alzheimer's, and they've just written a book about it. B. and I have traveled in the same circles for years, and she's been this idol of beauty and class, and she's kind of like Dottie. She's still beautiful and radiant, but she can't quite get her thoughts together. We need plays like this so that we can have the conversation, because nobody really knows what it is when it starts to happen. Is it senility, dementia, Alzheimer's, just old age?"
Inspired in part by Domingo's success alternating performing and playwriting, Washington is also currently at work on an autobiographical show, Feeding the Dragon, about how she literally grew up in the New York Public Library system (her father was a custodian and her family actually lived in several branches). "It started as a memoir, but now it's a show so I can naturally step in and out of the stories as I'm telling them," she says. "It's been an amazing journey, but it's scary. As an actor I can hide behind my playwright's words, but this is me. Having done his own one-person show, A Boy and His Soul, Colman has been unbelievably supportive and encouraging. He was the first person I read any of it for, and he did the first rewrites with me. He said, 'Turn that great collaborative heart that you have for other work, my work, other new playwrights' work, and turn that on yourself.' Colman's truly is an inspiration. Whenever I think, 'I can't do this, I'm tired,' I remember he's doing 12 things! He'll call me and say, 'Where are you with that?' Oy, talk about holding your friends accountable!"
Photos by Carol Rosegg. Top image: Sharon Washington.