Dulé Hill: What it's like to play Nat 'King' Cole in Malvern, 'The West Wing's' Charlie and 'Psych's' Gus

Dule Hill will portray legendary entertainer Nat “King” Cole at People’s Light in Malvern, through Dec. 3.

We know Dulé Hill as Charlie Young in The West Wing and Gus Guster in Psych. But how about famed singer Nat “King” Cole? He’s taking the stage at People’s Light in Malvern, playing and singing the title role in Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole, by Philadelphia-born actor and playwright Colman Domingo and cowriter Patricia McGregor. The Tickets: $47-$72.show runs through Dec. 3. (Read about People’s Light’s experiment with dynamic pricing for the show.)

In Lights Out, Cole faces cancellation of The Nat King Cole Show, one of the first national TV variety shows to be hosted by an African American. Songs include some of his greatest hits, including “Nature Boy,” “It’s a Good Day,” and “Unforgettable.” The production also costars Broadway guy Daniel J. Watts as Cole’s close friend Sammy Davis Jr.

Between rehearsals at People’s Light, Hill discussed Cole, Lights Out, and a few tidbits about West Wing and Psych.

How much Nat “King” Cole was in the house when you were coming up?

He was always around during the holidays. My dad loved that Natalie Cole album Unforgettable. He played that in the house all the time. But it wasn’t until I was in college that I bought a Best of Nat King Cole CD, and that thing ended up being on repeat for a long time. I was so attracted to his sound, that magnificent voice, that graceful energy he had. There’s also that ironic combination of his: emotional yet also untouchable. From that point on, I was a fan. But I didn’t know much about the dynamics of his history, the hills, valleys, twists, and turns he had to go through in his life.

When the play opens, we see him in a very burdened emotional and political moment, just when he’s about to lose one of the high points of his career, this historic variety show on TV.

All the signs were there that the show should have had a successful run, but he needed a national sponsor; you needed one for a national TV show to thrive. He couldn’t obtain one, and the show was canceled. Here’s where the play really shows us the nuances in the social situation. What they say is that sponsors were afraid of how viewers in the South might react to a show hosted by a black man. But, in fact, local sponsors in the South saw no negative backlash. So it was more the higher-echelon people in power who were not willing to support his show. And it was these powerful people who hid behind this excuse about Southern viewers.

When you look at society today, so much of our social debate is doing the same thing: hiding behind supposed explanations, feeding into our worst fears, behind this mask, when what it is all along is the system wanting to keep people in boxes, keep them from making their own empowering connections, because that would not be good for the puppet-masters. That’s the connection I started to grasp. A lot of this stuff is happening now.

Cole had to walk a tightrope, didn’t he? One that required amazing restraint and character. Yet he also drew fire for being perhaps too compliant, not outspoken enough.

What I take from Mr. Cole is that he walked in grace so much, exuded grace, but underneath it there was always fire. Just being a black man in America, I can relate to having to make that choice every day. This makes me think of Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing, with his knuckle rings spelling HATE on one hand and LOVE on another. Always you ask yourself: Who do I want to bring to the table today? And if I am soft or graceful or kind, don’t take my kindness for weakness. It took a lot of bravery for Mr. Cole to keep extending a hand in the midst of all the hurt he suffered. At a time when others were playing other roles all around him, trying to achieve the same goals he shared, he chose to gracefully inhabit a quiet revolution.

Grace, see, is a choice. Because we can’t always choose fire; where would that get us? You have to get to the point in life where you know when to use the fire and when not to. Anyone can relate to this, anyone who has been hurt or cast aside.

And you get to sing.

I don’t think you can do a story about Nat “King” Cole and not try to croon. That wouldn’t be possible. Such a magnificent voice.

It’s hard to miss this thread of the popular song in your work: the affectionate homage to 1980s pop in Psych, the great Cotton Club-era popular songs of Around Midnight, and now the midcentury songbook of Cole and Lights Out. It’s often a sense of what the music tells us about the time, almost music as social work.

I’m a tap-dancer first, so I’ve been brought up with music. I’m always attracted to what music can say, its message, its healing power, its power to arm us against misfortune. Music is a wonderful way to share or exchange emotion, to say a lot without using words. And the artist who has the power of music in their hands, they can feed that power into either our greater or lesser selves.

Now one question each on The West Wing and Psych. There was a concerted effort on West Wing to make sure your character, Charlie Young, really developed. To what extent were you involved in that process?

What? Me? I was a young actor working with the greatest cast ever, in my very first TV show. Not only did I have all these amazing actors around me, but you’re also talking about a genius like Aaron Sorkin. This is the same guy who wrote, “You can’t handle the truth!” I don’t think he needs me to tell him how to create a character for the screen.

Aaron was so brilliant with what he used to develop characters and story lines. I was impressed with how perceptive he was to the dynamics among the actors off-camera. Martin [Sheen] and I started to form this father-son bond off-camera. Aaron saw that and brought it into the Charlie-President Bartlet relationship. In Season One, when Charlie started dating Zoe [daughter of President Bartlet] — this was before Twitter and online comments, when people still wrote letters — and we received a lot of hate mail. So Aaron used that to create the season finale of Season One.

With Lights Out, much the same thing happens. With Coleman and Patricia, you let them do their job and then you do yours. They are the brilliant people with language. You do some things, sure. As we’ve been workshopping, we’d do the script, discuss it, try things, they’d listen, see what you were doing, and then they’d go away, and by next morning, come with something unbelievably brilliant.

Will there be a Psych reunion? A Very Psych Christmas, maybe?

It’s happening! Psych: The Movie is coming to the USA channel on Dec. 7. They just announced the release date. So, to all you Psych-O’s out there: The Psych team is back, so get ready to suuuck iiit!

THEATER

Lights Out: Nat 'King' Cole

  • Through Dec. 3, People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern. Tickets: $47-$72; youth $29-$49.
  • Information: 610-644-3500, peopleslight.org