A Boy and His Soul
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 23, 2009
The "soul" referred to in the title of Colman Domingo's autobiographical solo show at the Vineyard Theatre is soul music: this is a jukebox play, if you will—a coming-of-age story told via the soundtrack of a remembered life. The music (26 cues are noted in the script) is absolutely integral both to the story and to the telling. From Aretha ("Day Dreaming") to Gladys Knight ("The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me"), from Marvin Gaye ("Let's Make Love") to Teddy Pendergrass ("You Can't Hide from Yourself"), A Boy and His Soul is packed full of hits from the '70s and '80s, the years when Domingo was growing up in West Philadelphia.
The songs are both framing device and frequent jumping-off point for the stories Domingo tells here. The main characters are his mother, Edie; his step-father, Clarence; his older sister, Averie; and his older brother, Rick. Each had his or her own connections to Soul, which Domingo explains and synthesizes. "Saturday night was the Battle Royal of Soul Music in my house," he tells us in the introduction to one of the best sections of the play, in which he describes his siblings getting ready for nights out on the town to the strains and rhythms of the Isleys and Donna Summer, and his parents coming home, much later, Pop serenading Mom with some Stylistics. I loved Domingo's evocation of his step-dad Clarence singing boldly and uninhibitedly to Edie: what a strong and loving couple they appear to be!
Besides reminiscing about his family life, Domingo spends some time here on his own coming out as a young gay man. He then flashes forward, during the final quarter of the show, to more recent events, in which he and his sister and brother have to deal with the untethering reality of parents growing old, becoming sick, and moving away from their longtime neighborhood.
Domingo works hard in A Boy and His Soul, abetted by his director Tony Kelly and choreographer Ken Roberson. The set, with a sort of remembered version of his boyhood home as backdrop, and the most important stuff—an old-style hi-fi setup and crates full of vintage LPs—on stage in the foreground, is by Rachel Hauck, and is invaluable. Sound designer Tom Morse and sound board operator Brian Petway make conspicuous contributions as well, naturally enough, in this show that is always propelled by its music.
What I missed was the other kind of soul—Domingo relates lots of anecdotes but when the show was over I didn't feel that I knew him very well, despite the accumulation of facts and trivia provided. I can intuit his connections to the music he's chosen, but the connections don't seem fully examined or explored; we never really learn how he got from being the nerdy little boy who played violin and listened to Beethoven to the tentative, closeted gay man in college to the man we see before us, nearly 20 years after that.
But the show is never less than entertaining and it's certainly well put together. And the trip down memory lane, via all those old recordings, is going to be a real treat for a whole lot of people Domingo's age and older.