Colman Domingo revisits his West Philadelphia, soul music-infused childhood in the solo show A Boy and His Soul at San Francisco’s Thick House. Photos by Rick Martin.
Domingo’s soulful `Boy’ better than ever at Thick House
Marcel Proust had his madeleienes. Colman Domingo has his ’70s soul music.
The needle touches down on the spinning vinyl, snaps and crackles make the speakers bounce. Then the music starts to play, and we’re jettisoned back into a world where nostalgia, family and deep emotion provide the bass groove to an all-grown-up tune.
Domingo’s dynamic solo show “A Boy and His Soul” has traveled this memory road before – at the Thick House in 2005. Now Domingo and the show are back as part of Thick Description’s 20th anniversary year, and “Soul” finds new depth it didn’t have three years ago.
Since we last saw Domingo, he has starred in a Broadway show (“Passing Strange”) and lost both parents whom he so affectionately conjures in “A Boy and His Soul.” His show is about growing up, but in many ways, a bunch of that growing up has happened fairly recently.
Raised in West Philadelphia in the 1970s – the same neighborhood that spawned, among others, Patti LaBelle and Will Smith – Domingo watched his neighborhood evolve from “loving, educated working class to crack central.” At a pivotal moment – his parents are selling his childhood home – Domingo discovers crates of old albums in the basement.
Seizing on these records as a link to a childhood about to disappear, Domingo takes one long, groovy look back before he turns his attention forward.
Wearing a red Adidas track suit – appropriate clothing because he gets a workout both physical and emotional – Domingo spends a fair portion of his 85-minute show listening to music, singing and dancing along. Of course he and director Tony Kelly have shaped the well-written show in dramatic and emotional ways as well, but those moments of letting loose to beloved songs are the ones that really stick with you.
Who hasn’t found some sort of joyous abandon in a favorite song, played at maximum volume in the privacy of one’s own personal nirvana?
We may not have grown up gay or black or in Philadelphia, but we can feel the musical connection to Switch’s “There’ll Never Be” or Ohio Players, James Brown, Teddy Pendergrass, Smokey Robinson, Kool and the Gang, Al Green or Diana Ross.
At one point, we’re so into Domingo’s world, when he encourages us to sing along with him to the Stylistics’ “Betcha By Golly Wow,” we do – shyly, but we do, and it’s magical.
We also get to know Domingo – called JJ by his family after his middle name, Jason – and his older siblings, brother Rick and sister Avery. There’s a younger brother, Philip, but Domingo says he’ll write another show about him. We also develop great affection for his mother, Edie, and his stepfather, Clarence.
There’s nothing shattering about Domingo’s upbringing – there was love, there was fighting, there was struggle – nor is there anything particularly novel about his coming out in college. But the story of anyone discovering himself or herself, coming to terms with the past and taking ownership of it is something we never grow tired of hearing – especially when it’s told with heart and honesty.
Domingo, with his boundless energy and ingratiating charm, definitely displays both, and he is able to punctuate his tale with the likes of Donny Hathaway, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, the Isley Brothers and the Five Stairsteps, so his story is that much more involving.
“A Boy and His Soul” continues through Sept. 14 at The Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$30 on a sliding scale. Call 415-401-8081 or visit www.thickhouse.org