Dulé Hill has 20 solid years on TV — an indelible, Emmy-nominated turn as presidential aide Charlie Young on the NBC drama “The West Wing,” the role of Gus Guster on USA’s lighthearted hit “Psych,” two seasons on HBO’s “Ballers” and now USA’s legal series “Suits.”
But Hill, 43, is taking a break from the small screen and returning to his stage musical roots in “Lights Out: Nat ‘King’ Cole,” which begins previews at the Geffen Playhouse on Tuesday and opens Feb. 13. The drama, which closes on what would have been the 100th birthday of Cole on March 17, examines the soul of the groundbreaking African American singer on the final episode of his 1956-57 NBC music-variety series, “The Nat King Cole Show,” which because of racial prejudice never attracted a national sponsor.
Sammy Davis Jr. (Daniel J. Watts) tells Cole that he should “go out with a bang” on that final episode. And the play, written by “Fear the Walking Dead” actor Colman Domingo and Patricia McGregor, features Hill singing several of Cole’s best-selling hits including “Mona Lisa” and “Nature Boy.”
Hill began his career as the 10-year-old star of the touring production of “The Tap Dance Kid,” with the legendary tap dancer Harold Nicholas. His Broadway credits include Savion Glover’s “Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk” in 1996 and “After Midnight” in 2013.
The actor paused before rehearsal at the Geffen to chat about “Lights Out” for this edited conversation.
You haven’t done a musical since “After Midnight.” What drew you to “Lights Out”?
I got involved around April 2017. Colman Domingo had sent me a message saying that he and Patricia McGregor were working on a play about Nat King Cole. It was just a workshop, but would I be interested in being a part of it? He said to come and do the workshop and we’ll go from there.
I’ve been a fan of Colman Domingo and Patricia McGregor for years — the type of work they do and their point of view.
What is their point of view?
As artists they have something to say. It’s always something to me that moves the ball forward. It gives you something to really think about. I was really impressed with what they are trying to craft. They were using Nat King Cole as the vehicle. They were telling his story, but the story they were telling was not uncommon to men in general.
I felt that was an interesting way to approach telling the story of an iconic figure. I think those are the type of stories that have legs and have real meaning. I think it’s way more profound when you can take an iconic figure and you pull the mask back.
What does pull the mask back reveal about Cole?
At some point in your life, you’ve had to make a choice: Do I really give this person a piece of my mind, or do I find a more graceful way — do I extend grace to the situation. Unless you are part of that elite 1% of people, at some point in your life you’ve had to suck something up. What does that to do you when you do that?
To be the first African American [with a TV variety series] and one of the greatest crooners this world has ever known — to get to that level costs you.
Cole was immensely popular but he also endured racism. He was beaten up onstage in Alabama in 1956, and he had a cross burned on his lawn when he moved into Hancock Park in the 1950s as the first African-American family in that neighbor.
There was a bullet shot through their window, I believe while the children were home. Their dog was poisoned. They were offered money to move out of the neighborhood. His songs were still about love, and he brought joy to any ear that heard his voice.
You had to have been anxious to play someone so iconic.
It is extremely exciting and extremely terrifying because it’s Mr. Cole. When Colman first approached me, if he had told me “You’re going to have to sing eight or nine songs of Nat King Cole,” I would have said, “Brother, no I’m not.” But what happened was we worked on the material first — the play itself and the songs that were being added in. So, I guess the process gave me some time to really just accept the daunting task of doing that.
For me when I touch the stage, I’m not trying to imitate Mr. Cole. I am trying to embody Mr. Cole.
During your career have you had to make choices?
Of course, I have
How do you deal with it?
Here’s the thing. This is why I can relate to Mr. Cole and his story. I try my best to have an understanding of someone’s point of view. I try my best to extend grace when I can. But for me, I dance, and I do theater. For me that is my sanctuary. I rent the studio and I’m just there by myself. it gives me an avenue to express myself.
I’m tipping my hat, taking a bow and expressing my love to Harold Nicholas and Gregory Hines because in this show, the way that they’ve crafted the show, I get a chance to have wonderful words to say, sing beautiful music. Because of the choreography of Jared Grimes, I get a chance to really do tap dance the way I would like to in this show. The fact that I get to do all three of those things in one piece, doesn’t happen often.
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‘Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole’
Where: Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., L.A.
When: Previews start Tuesday, opens Feb. 13, closes March 17. Performances at 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays (check for exceptions)
Tickets: $30-$120 (subject to change); rush seats $10-$35
Information: (310) 208-5454, www.geffenplayhouse.org