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Stepping into the House that Nat Built

An interview with actor Dulé Hill

Dulé Hill at Capital Studios. Photo by Jeff Lorch

When Capitol Studios invited us to interview Dulé Hill in studio, with Nat “King” Cole’s piano just feet from where we spoke, we knew it would be a wonderful way to recognize Mr. Cole’s centennial year. What we weren’t prepared for was the overwhelming sense of history and genius that emanates from the walls of Capitol Studios. For a music-lover sitting where the greats created the soundtracks of our lives, it was nothing short of awe-inspiring. As Mr. Hill prepared to once again take on the role of Mr. Cole, we talked music, history and how, 100 years later, Nat “King” Cole remains unforgettable.

Dulé Hill sings “Orange Colored Sky” and “Unforgettable” at Capitol Studios.

So, here we are at Capitol Studios where Nat “King” Cole famously recorded, and you are sitting next to his piano. How does it feel?

Dulé Hill: It feels as if I’m on hallowed ground. Sacred — it feels anointed. To be here with the actual instrument he used is an absolute honor. I couldn’t really ask for a better way to re-embark on the journey of telling Mr. Cole’s story.

What drew you to Lights Out? Why a Nat “King” Cole play?

DH: Originally, two names drew me to Lights Out: Patricia McGregor and Colman Domingo. I’ve been a fan of theirs for years. Their artistry, their brilliance, what they bring to the stage and to every piece of work of theirs I’ve seen — I wanted the opportunity to get into the same sandbox with them. Then one day Colman called me up and said they were working on a piece about Nat “King” Cole — and I am a huge fan! He’s a trailblazer for all of the artists who have come after him, including myself. I feel I follow in the footsteps of Nat “King” Cole. The fact that I can be on television doing what I do is a direct result of what he did (and endured) in his time. When those three things came together — Patricia, Colman and Nat “King” Cole — I jumped at it. Now, I will say, Colman kind of tricked me. At first he said “It’s a play. We’re doing a PLAY about Nat “King” Cole.” In my mind I’m thinking, “Okay, I can do a play about him. Maybe I’ll have to hum a little tune.” But as time went on, more and more music was added to the point where I told Colman he’d kind of pulled a fast one on me here. Honestly, if Colman would have hit me up and told me we were doing a musical about Nat “King” Cole I would have said no thank you! I mean, it’s Nat “King” Cole! I haven’t been in this business for this long by making stupid decisions! And I think anyone who tries to sing Nat “King” Cole — well, that can be chalked up to a stupid decision. But I’m so glad I did because it’s been a journey of a lifetime.

Can you talk about the creative vision behind Lights Out and what it means to bring his life and legacy to the stage? What attributes of his make the role most interesting for you?

DH: With Lights Out, Patricia and Colman have taken the past and have viewed it through the lens of today. The story that is being told back then is the same story we need to be telling now. I appreciated that it wasn’t just a cradle-to-grave story of Nat “King” Cole. The play really pulls the layers back. Nat “King” Cole was known as a man of grace. He was so elegant and smooth. But what does it cost to be that? Just because I appear to be a gentleman doesn’t mean I don’t hurt. It doesn’t mean I haven’t had frustrations and had to go through things to get to where I am. It doesn’t mean it’s not costing me to extend that grace to you. We’re looking at a great historical figure, but this figure was still a man. His story is not that different from anyone walking on the street today. That’s what really attracted me to the role. For anybody who has had to suck up anything in this world — to see that in an American icon — I think people will be able to relate to the cost of it all.

How did you first discover Nat’s music?

DH: It started first with my grandfather during the holidays. He’d sit at the piano and play Christmas tunes and, of course, one of the songs was always “The Christmas Song.” To this day, that is still one of my favorite songs ever and that was from an age so young I can’t even remember. Then, in high school, I got a compilation album of Nat “King” Cole and I fell in love with his voice — the ease, the way he could express emotion. And it’s been a love affair ever since. To this day, I love playing Mr. Cole’s music. It speaks to my inner being in a way that most artists do not.

Do you have favorite songs of his?

DH: Yes, but I have so many favorites — at some point, if you have so many, are they really favorites or do you just enjoy Nat “King” Cole’s music? I just enjoy it all. Of course on the list is “The Christmas Song,” “Unforgettable,” “Nature Boy.” “L.O.V.E.” — I really love that one. [sings a bit] “L is for the way you look at me.” “Let There Be Love” is another one that speaks to me. I think I’m someone who tries to live my life extending love, so maybe that’s why these songs really touch me. Also, “I’m Going to Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” — that is one of my favorite, favorite Nat “King” Cole songs. Because, you know, you have your favorites but then you have you favorite-favorites! Since I started doing this show, I’ve come to know and love “The Party’s Over.” I love singing it, I love hearing it and I’m looking forward to performing it come February.

His music is often called timeless. Why do you think that is? And what songs do you feel best illustrate that timeless quality?

DH: He has a unique ability to tap into emotion — we all feel the same things. Yes, time changes but the way the human spirit feels is constant. The songs of his that I’m most attracted to are the songs about love — who doesn’t yearn for love, who doesn’t love love, who doesn’t know what it is to be enamored by another? He has a melodic ease when tapping into emotion and that makes it timeless.

As you mentioned earlier, Lights Out is much more than a typical jukebox musical. It explores Nat “King” Cole’s struggle to find his place in the predominantly white world of 1950s television. Can you talk a bit about how his career and his struggle are represented in this play?

DH: I appreciate that Lights Out is not a typical jukebox musical because there is so much more to this man than his songs. Martin Sheen always told me, “If it’s going to matter, it’s going to cost you something.” As we look at Mr. Cole’s story, we see that there was a cost in achieving all he did. Leadership is lonely. You can’t be a trailblazer at the forefront of a movement and expect to be in a crowd. If you’re there in the front, you will look to your left and right and you won’t see many people beside you. I think with Mr. Cole, particularly being the first African-American to have his own variety show, being able to achieve that level of success — it’s a lonely place and that loneliness will cost you. A neighborhood that doesn’t want you — right here in Los Angeles, one of the most liberal places in the country, right down the road. They didn’t want him there. What is it like to have your dog poisoned because you want to have a nice home for your family? What is it like to have a bullet through your window because you want a safe place for your family? How does it feel to know that when the homeowners’ association is talking about not wanting “undesirables” in the neighborhood they’re talking about you? To still be able to walk on stage and extend grace, and extend love — what does that cost? The thing with Nat “King” Cole is that he was at the forefront of the movement even though he wasn’t the public face of it. He was a major funder for the NAACP during that time. He did what he did because he believed it was right, but there’s always a cost and this play explores that cost. With Mr. Cole, his story is not so different from many stories of today. Do I extend grace or do I extend fire? And I always say unless you are an extraordinarily wealthy, white male, there has been some point in your life when you have had to make a choice. If you are trying to achieve success in anything, there are going to be opposing forces. So unless you are the one running it all, you are going to have to suck it up at some point in your life. And when you make that choice, there’s always a cost. Patricia and Colman go to the heart of that question, one we still constantly ask today: do we burn it all down or do we extend love? That’s a story I appreciate.

Nat “King” Cole’s centennial year is 2019. 100 years after his birth, how do you feel his music and legacy inform the work of today’s artists, yourself included?

DH: Just look around and see all of the artists who are out there. Whether you’re talking John Legend, Anthony Hamilton, Beyonce — go on the top 100 of the R&B list and they are all directly connected to Nat “King” Cole. And, as an actor on television, I would not be here if not for him. Sammy Davis Jr. used to say, and I’m paraphrasing here, that he would never walk through a door unless he was absolutely certain that door would stay open for those who came after him. I believe that’s what Mr. Cole has done. He endured during that time. He broke down barriers just by being in people’s living room, by being in their ear as they listened to his music. It has allowed us to all be here now doing what we do. There’s a line in the play that says “Kill me now, there will be ten more.” We are the ten more. I know, for myself, that I am one of those ten.

By Amy Levinson

For tickets and showtimes, please visit geffenplayhouse.org/lightsout or call our Box Office at 310.208.5454 (open daily, 7:00 a.m. — 6:00 p.m.).

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