Domingo’s `Boy’ growing up off-Broadway


Thick Description artistic director Tony Kelly reports the good news that former San Franciscan Colman Domingo’s stellar one-man show, A Boy and His Soul, will be part of the 2009-2010 season at off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre.

Kelly will direct, as he did in the show’s original Thick D run in 2005 and in its revival in the fall of last year.

The autobiographical show conjures up Domingo’s childhood in Philadelphia in the 1970s complete with a fantastic soul music soundtrack and one of the most exuberant performances you’re likely to find on a solo stage.

Read my review of the show from last fallhere and my interview with Domingo on the subject of Broadway fame after his Passing Strange experience and the resurrection of his Soul here.

Here is Domingo, along with his Passing Strange co-star Stew, performing the composer’s “Gary’s Song” from “Spongebob Squarepants” at Joe’s Pub last fall.

Here’s the Vineyard’s official season announcement.

Review: `The America Play’

Rhonnie Washington (left) is The Foundling Father, an Abraham Lincoln lookalike, who lets customers (such as David Westley Skillman) take aim and fire a cap gun at him in Suzan-Lori Parks’ The America Play, part of Thick Description’s 20th anniversary season. Photos by Rick Martin.


Thick Description revives `America’


Echoes, parallels and holes fill the work of Suzan-Lori Parks, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright behind Topdog/Underdog and The America Play, which is being revived as part of Thick Description’s 20th anniversary.

Parks is a fascinating, entertaining, often inscrutable writer. She’s more poet than storyteller, and her work has a particular rhythm that plays out amid recurring motifs and themes. But when a director cracks the Parks code, as Thick D’s Tony Kelly has done with “The America Play,” the results rattle the brain and the bones.

Kelly and Thick Description first produced The America Play in 1994 at the cavernous Theatre Artaud, where the stage stretched 60 feet back and turned Parks’ work into an avant garde epic.

In the much, much smaller confines of the Thick House, set designer Rick Martin reconceived is design in a genius way. He frames the entire stage with a thick wooden border and forces perspective with a gorgeous, rustic wood-plank floor and wall that opens up in surprising ways to become the stage of Ford’s Theatre and the great maw of an open grave.

The visual precision of the production – which receives assists from Lucas Benjaminh Krech’s lights and Keiko Shimosato Carreiro’s 19th– and early 20th-century costumes – is important because the look is nearly as important as the content. Or maybe I should say there are as many visual echoes as there are auditory in Parks’ play.

The setting, we’re told, is an exact replica of the “Great Hole of History.” And in this hole is a man, the Foundling Father (Rhonnie Washington, reprising his role from 14 years ago), an African-American man who apparently bears a striking resemblance to Abraham Lincoln, so he finds himself playing the man from time to time. Someone told him he played Lincoln so well that “he ought to be shot.”

So the Foundling Father, a grave digger by trade from a long line of diggers, abandoned his wife and young son and ventured into the world. He ended up with an interesting job: he would play Lincoln on the last night of his life attending a production of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre. While the president sits in his box chortling over the middling comedy on stage, customers pay a penny (a Lincoln penny, of course) to aim a cap gun and pretend to shoot the great man. Following the “assassination,” in true John Wilkes Booth style, the assailant or assailants (played by David Westley Skillman and Deirdre Renee Draginoff) shout something along the lines of, “The South is avenged!” or “And so to the tyrants!”

It’s a living.

Washington is personable, funny and fully believable in this strange alternate universe, where his character is continually winking at the pasteboard cut-out of Lincoln to his right and nodding to the bust of Lincoln to his left.

It’s hard to make sense of oft-repeated lines such as, “He digged the hole and the hole held him,” or to make such words as “historicity” seem authentic, but Washington does it effortlessly.

In Act 2, Washington is mostly a memory as the Foundling Father’s wife, Lucy (Cathleen Riddley) and son, Brazil (Brian Freeman, another alumnus of the ’94 production), are digging in search of…what? In search of a body? Of artifacts? Of family? Of history?

Linear storytelling is not high on Parks’ list of priorities in this play, but Kelly’s production is so vivid, his cast so astute – Riddley and Freeman are wonderful together – that the free-form nature of the play becomes an asset. There’s humor and humanity in abundance, even when there’s an absence of coherence.

Being able to trust the production and the actors means you relinquish the need to know exactly what’s going on at every moment. The America Play, with its off-kilter view of history and patriotism, deals with race and legacy and purpose in ways that sneak up on you.

In the end, this is an America that makes it easy to stand up and salute.

In the photo above right: From Act 2 of The America Play, Lucy (Cathleen Riddley) and Brazil (Brian Freeman) dig through the Great Hole of History.



The America Play continues through Dec. 14 at the Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$30 on a sliding scale. Call 415-401-8081 or visit

Review: `A Boy and His Soul’

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
(four stars)

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

Review: `Dead Mother, Or Shirley Not All in Vain’

opened Jan. 13, 2007 at Traveling Jewish Theatre, San Francisco

Wacky `Dead Mother’ springs to vibrant life
three 1/2 stars Shirley not to be missed

Dead Mother, contrary to its title, is quite a lively evening of theater.

The full title of David Greenspan’s wickedly playful, intelligent play, Dead Mother, Or Shirley Not All in Vain, gives you some idea of the writer’s general tone: funny, irreverent and secretly serious.

A co-production of San Francisco theater companies Traveling Jewish Theatre and Thick Description, Dead Mother opened marks the 17-year-old play’s first production since its premiere at New York’s Public Theater.

It’s easy to see why the play might scare companies less brave than TJT and Thick D. Here you have a farce involving sexual identity, cross-dressing, bestiality, Greek mythology, five acts and enough speedy dialogue to choke an untrained actor.

Thick D’s artistic director, Tony Kelly, is at the helm of Dead Mother, which is reassuring from the start, and he has assembled a cast of Bay Area stalwarts, all of whom do superb, even inspired, work here.

New York playwright (and actor and director) Greenspan seems to take his cue from Tony Kushner (Angels in America), who has called Greenspan “the most talented theater artist of my generation.” So, who knows? Maybe Kushner was inspired by Greenspan.

Whatever, Greenspan seems to relish breaking boundaries.

He sets up Dead Mother as a rollicking farce as Daniel (Gabriel Marin) has found the woman, Maxine (Deb Fink), he wants to marry. Trouble is, Maxine will only marry him if she can meet his mother, and Daniel’s imperious Jewish mother, Shirley, is dead.

Ever the creative thinker, Daniel goes to his brother, Harold (Liam Vincent).

It seems that years ago, while Shirley was still alive, Harold dressed up as his mother and successfully fooled his father, Melvin (Louis Parnell), into thinking he was Shirley.

If Harold is so convincing, why shouldn’t Harold pretend to be Shirley for just one more night so Maxine can be welcomed into the family?

Of course all goes swimmingly until Harold’s father shows up, sees his dead wife and is effectively convinced it’s her ghost.

This would all be so much gender-bending Neil Simon if Greenspan didn’t throw in some brainy, wacky stuff as well. When Maxine, Daniel, “Shirley” and Melvin go to the theater, we go with them and watch Greenspan’s randy take on the Greeks, with the cast playing the “actors” wearing togas with genitals on the outside (hilarious costumes are by Raul Aktanov).

Just what is all that Greek stuff? When Maxine gets back from the show, she asks the same question, but she says the play was “nice…we supported the arts and got out of the house.”

With the appearance of a sperm whale (played with Moby Dick style by Dena Martinez), the play heads off into self-conscious surrealism. Act 4 is performed as a reading, with the actors behind music stands, describing the epic action — Alice B. Toklas (played with elan by Corey Fischer) takes Harold on a guided tour through hell — that would be virtually impossible to stage on a shoestring budget.

The final scene is essentially a family drama, minus the farce, although Harold is still playing his mother, but the confrontations with his father are too intense and deeply felt to be comedy.
The epilogue, delivered gamely by Martinez, is far too conventional to wrap up a play that is so grandly — and oddly — entertaining.

Still, Dead Mother is a play that lingers because of the wonderful work by director Kelly and his actors — especially Vincent, whose extraordinary as Harold/Shirley with only a string of pearls to differentiate them, and Fink, who’s mile-a-minute mouth is a wonder.
Greenspan throws an awful lot onto the stage, but most of it works. Dead Mother is as audacious as it is funny, as head-spinning and confusing as it is beguiling and delightful.

Dead Mother, Or Shirley Not All in Vain continues through Feb. 17 at Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida St., San Francisco. Shows are at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $31-$34. Call 800-838-3006 or visit or for information.