When Domingo talks about inhabiting the role of Rustin, his face glows an almost angelic glow. “I believe Bayard Rustin chose me to portray him,” he muses, though Domingo didn’t learn about Rustin’s life and work until he was a student at Temple University, a fact that he found “confusing.” How could a pivotal Black civil rights activist become just “a bit of a footnote”? Adding to that confusion is the fact that Rustin grew up in nearby West Chester, Pennsylvania, just 40 miles outside of Philadelphia. But in San Francisco, Domingo encountered Rustin all over again through Brian Freeman’s Civil Sex, a play about the man’s life.
Domingo first saw the play as an audience member, but as chance would have it, he ended up playing Rustin in Civil Sex when a fellow actor friend had to step away from the role for a week. While he doesn’t remember the exact details of the play anymore, he does remember his approach to playing the activist: “I did a deep dive, because with anything, I research the hell out of [what] I do,” he explains. For years after, industry people would approach Domingo imploring him to figure out a path to playing Rustin again. “People kept saying, ‘This is for you,’” Domingo recalls, sharing that he’d heard the sentiment “three, four, five, six times.” People believed that he needed to be the one to highlight Rustin’s importance and bring his story to more and more audiences.
Amid all this, Domingo went to work building his career in theater and elsewhere, sometimes working up to five jobs, doing everything from bartending to teaching as he established his place in the arts. When students ask him about how he’s managed to keep a place in the arts, he pauses before he muses aloud: “I have this very wild and unwieldy career,” he notes. “I don’t even know if I could teach that or how to manifest that or make that work. I just did the work that was in front of me.”
Part of that has been his creative impatience, it seems; he talks about “never just waiting for the phone to ring” for acting gigs. Instead he focused on creating the work. “I want the work to be there and exist. So naturally I became a producer, a director, and a writer, out of necessity,” he says. Domingo has been directing theater for over 20 years, from 1998’s Pieces of a Quilt – 3 to Dot in 2019, with stops along the way including Single Black Female (2008), Exit Cuckoo (2009) and A Band of Angels (2020), a tapestry of work as diverse as his parallel acting career, which has included guest roles on everything from Nash Bridges and various Law & Order franchises to animated work in BoJack Horseman and American Dad! Reflecting on his series of moves over the years, Domingo offers, “I’m always loose and wily and I can try things a hundred different ways, and I’m not afraid to make a bad choice. . . . I think that all choices are good choices, as long as you’re making the choice.”