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The Man Who Came to Dinner 

Colman Domingo

Wednesday, Feb 23 2000
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Damn, I wanna be famous. I mean, don't you? Of course, not for this dinner thing. No, that would be kind of, well, embarrassing.

But more like Adam Duritz says, "I want to be Bob Dylan." Yeah! Or a reasonable facsimile thereof. "We all want to be big, big stars. But we don't know why."

For those of you fellow rock legends temporarily hiding out as administrative assistants or waylaid on the dot-com road to instant financial success, I'm here to tell you the acceptance speech you've been preparing all these years will not be in vain. You will be famous. And soon. Just remember, even Jim Carrey kicked it as a garden variety janitor before the $20 million checks started rolling in.

This week's host offers a shining needle of hope in our decaying haystack of broken dreams. On all our behalves, Colman Domingo is gracefully navigating the limbo between "Would you like fries with that?" and "I'd like to thank all the little people."

I met the actor/director for brunch at his Mission District apartment. "One of the last deals on Valencia Street," he said, a backward baseball cap on his head.

After years of dues-paying on local stages, Colman is starting to pop up on big and small screens alike. In addition to his recurring role on San Francisco's own Nash Bridges, and his recent turn with Clint Eastwood in True Crime, Colman stars opposite teen idols Devon Sawa and Tara Reid in the soon-to-be-released Around the Fire. And in honor of Black History Month, PBS is putting Colman's acclaimed short film King of the Bingo Game into heavy rotation (check local listings for dates and times).

"Do you eat fish?" asked Colman, pouring me a tall glass of OJ. "I'm making us some pan-seared salmon in a balsamic reduction." With a big white apron tied around his waist, and a broad, authentic grin, Colman looked like a very young Morgan Freeman enthusiastically whipping up our meal. "This all comes from years of working in restaurants," he explained. "You know, the Slow Club and Stars and Zuni. I would watch the chefs and think, "Man, I would love to cook like that.' I always wanted to become a chef when I was younger."

"Me, too," I agreed, remembering the culinary imperative to escape my mother's meatloaf. Instead I opted to become the world's first Dylan-esque dinner reporter.

While he perfected our pending meal, Colman set me up with the VCR remote for a private screening of the half-hour King of the Bingo Game. The film, based on a 1944 short story by Ralph Ellison, is the second installment in PBS's "American Storytellers" series. Set in post-Depression era Harlem, it tells the story of Sonny, played by Colman, an overwhelmed Southern transplant desperately looking to provide for his ailing wife and find some sense of order and belonging in a world constantly changing around him. It's beautifully crafted, with Colman's tender performance set off by a strong cast of supporting Bay Area actors. Director Elise Robertson does a brilliant job of capturing one man's frantic internal struggle against a backdrop of a Bay Area turned 1940s New York.

"Is that the Roxie?" I called to Colman in the kitchen, recognizing the familiar tiles of the Mission theater's ticket booth. In the film, the Roxie plays an old-time New York movie house at which Sonny escapes the pressures of his life through his dream of winning the $36.90 jackpot in the daily intermission bingo game.

"Very nice," I commented, joining Colman back in the kitchen. "For a 26-minute film, it's amazing how it really pulls you in. Even the extras were wonderfully believable."

"It was just really, really intense," remembered Colman as he moved our plates to the small wooden living room table. "Every black actor in town was either up for it, or in it. I thought, "Wow, this is what film can be' ... instead of going on Nash Bridges and being a stupid criminal every other week."

In making this film the director was able to transcend a common dilemma for local actors and filmmakers. "It's so shitty the way people keep fucking over Bay Area actors," Colman commented. "When it came to casting Bingo Game, people kept telling Elise, "Oh, you're going to have to go to New York or L.A. for these roles. I don't think these actors are here.' Well, you keep saying that and we will go away. She was like, "Well let me just audition here first.' And she was really impressed with what she found."

With that I dug into a perfectly rare piece of salmon topped with a delicious cucumber-tomato relish. On the side were garlic sautéed green beans, and a pile of herbed wild rice.

"What's with the door?" I asked, noticing the oversized ornate wooden panel consuming most of his living room wall.

"Videos," replied Colman cryptically. "Take a look."

Pulling the squeaky handle on what was once the underside of a functioning Murphy bed, I found a tomb dedicated to old-school "video on demand" -- a sea of VCR tapes stacked three deep in every direction.

"Whoa," I said. "Do you have an estimate?"

"Last count was about twelve hundred," said Colman, proving his dedication to his burgeoning film career.

"So what are your longer-range interests?" I asked. "Do you want to stay here?"

"I don't know," he admitted. "I've been thinking about New York. I've been thinking about L.A. Because that ceiling is there. And when you hit it, you're able to pick and choose what projects you want to do, which in one sense is a success. But in terms of money? Uh-uh.

"I mean, one minute I'm working at Berkeley Rep, the next minute I'm working at the Slow Club. And I don't want to do that anymore. Right now it's great, though, because all I'm doing is acting." In addition to his various on-camera projects, Colman was just beginning a run in Sons of Don Juan (through Feb. 27 at San Jose Repertory Theater).

"This city is great," he continued. "Unlike L.A., where you just get sucked into the bullshit machine, I felt like I could grow here." But acting opportunities in the Bay Area, he explained, remain very limited. Later that day he was off to audition for a small independent feature. "You want to know what I'm auditioning for?" he asked. "Either I'm the TV delivery guy who says, "Sign here,' or I'm the flower delivery guy who says, "Very pretty, lady.'"

It didn't sound so bad to me. Can't you just see the Dylan-esque, dinner-eating, delivery guy: "Go ahead, make my date-nut torte."

"Some things are just work," Colman added. "Like Nash Bridges. I'm thankful for it, but there's no artistry in that."

As we dug into a huge bowl of juicy green grapes for dessert (courtesy of Mission Produce on the corner) Colman told me the ironic tale of his first big movie premiere.

The San Francisco screening of Around the Fire, he explained, had been a very nice event, "with a reception and all." But L.A. "was a whole other story."

After catching a plane down in the afternoon, Colman met a friend for dinner before driving to the screening. Outside the theater he found throngs of people. "Five hundred to a thousand teenagers," he recalled. "They all knew Devon was going to be there, and Eric [Mabius], who was in Welcome to the Dollhouse."

As Colman approached one of the film's producers, it took the crowd only a few seconds to match his face up with the one on the posters. "Just earlier that afternoon," he said, "I was slinging hash. You know, I was waiting tables. And then I caught a plane. The next thing you know, I have 300 screaming girls around me. And I'm signing autographs, and taking pictures. And my hand hurt after it.

"The next day I'm back home and it's just like, "Hi, what can I get you with that?' Here I am, having this movie star life for a second.

"It's a humbling thing."

Want to host The Man Who Came to Dinner? E-mail SFDinner@aol.com and tell us what's cookin'.

About The Author

Barry Levine

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