Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Boy and His Soul

Photo/Carol Rosegg

These days, if Colman Domingo (who stood out among the giants of Passing Strange) has to "bump and hustle," it's because he wants to--and what a treat to subscribers at the Vineyard Theater that he wants to. His autobiographical one-man show, A Boy and His Soul, uses the sale of his childhood home in West Philly as an opportunity to dust off the records that defined his past, and to view his coming out story with what he refers to as "adult eyes." If there's any flaw in this production, it's that Domingo's life wasn't marred by easily dramatized tragedy. Things are all too easily framed, much like Rachel Hauck's set design, which literally hangs Domingo's basement--the storage space for all his memories--in a picture frame. But as every musical interlude reminds us--especially as channeled by this exceptionally charismatic performer--the sweet, slick sounds of soul can get pretty deep.

Music's also a great way for Domingo to make his story seem universal, especially given this up-tempo mix. Jokes keep us in the moment ("My house looked like a worn out ho after Fleet Week"), as does his delivery, which emphasizes things with an engaging, incredulous upward lilt. Music, however, transports us, which happens here when a blue light pierces the darkness to herald his remembrance of Earth, Wind and Fire--a near religious experience. (These are some very nice punctuations by director Tony Kelly, who treats the whole show with unabashed reverence.)

It transforms us, too, and it's through music that he defines his family, from stepfather Clarence (a "connegrosseur" of soul) singing sweetly, through the good times and the bad, "You're the one that I've been waiting for, forever," to his older brother Rick, who pimps, preens, and poses in his Kangol hat. There's his older sister Avery, a tomboy with a "I'ma-be-loud-as-hell-and-you'll-like-it" attitude, and himself, at thirteen, preparing for a Saturday night with the song "I'm Coming Out."

By this point, the show really hits its groove, with Domingo flying between members of his family, until he at last comes out to his brother (after an incident involving a dill pickle and a strip club, one of the many live details in this show). Teddy Pendegrass's "You Can't Hide From Yourself" and Marvin Gaye's call for love--between anyone--swell in the background; the drama is in wondering how his family will react. You may not have heard that particular track before, but the feelings expressed really are as universal as music. ("You know this song, right?" is the most frequent line in the show.)

A Boy and His Soul has its share of sorrow and loss, especially as time goes by and people grow older. But as that cabinet-sized record player and those dusty records remind us, we can take it with us: the soul spins on.

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