Soul. Do you have it, and if so, where do you get it? This is the question Colman Domingo asks in his one-man performance piece A Boy and His Soul, a manic, inspired and hilarious tour de force in which he plays every character, often setting his bittersweet, awkward childhood reminisces against a soundtrack of old records by Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder.
Domingo, who starred in the award-winning Broadway music Passing Strange (as well as the Spike Lee adaptation) and who can currently be seen on the Logo Networks The Big Gay Sketch Show, sat down to talk to us about ghetto queens, his working process, and why some audience members are frightened by the show.
Out: What should people know about this show?
Colman Domingo: Its about an inner-city black gay boy from Philadelphia finding his soul through his illustrious collection of soul music while he deals with loss, changes in his neighborhood, his evolving family, and moving away from the home he once knew.
How long were you in Philly?
I grew up there and left when I was 21. I went to San Francisco and thats where I started acting, directing, and writing. I was there for 10 years and moved to New York eight years ago. I love it here. Its home. Its beautiful.
Tell me more about the role music plays in this show.
I use the music in a very unusual ways. Its not a traditional musical. Its not even used like a jukebox, really. Its more like a listening room. I basically sing along to the music, and the lead singer in a song becomes my mother or father or some character in the story. I think a lot of times, the music is underscoring the scenes and I know how the music propels the story. Each song is very specific and well-chosen, I think. I call it a play with soul music.
What are some of the bands featured?
Donnie Hathaway, Gladys Knight, Teddy Pendergrass, Kool and the Gang, The Spinners, The Isaac Brothers, and stuff like that -- Tina Marie. So its not classic soul but soul from the late '70s and early '80s.
What sparked the initial inspiration for writing the play?
I basically started writing the play while my family was going through a lot of changes. My parents were both suffering from illness and my childhood home was being sold. The idea came from this stack of records my parents left in the basement in a storage closet. They rented the house out and it got more and more run down. Whenever my parents needed money, they would think of selling the house and want everything discarded. So there was all this stuff in the basement -- old records, an old Christmas tree. I kept saying, Are you sure you dont want this stuff?" They said no -- they wanted to let go, but I didnt.
I had all these attachments. I wanted something to hold onto. I had no home to call my own. I was a struggling artist in New York, and those things were my legacy. Things were slipping out of my hands and then my parents finally both passed away in 2006. So I just started writing about it, listening to a lot of this music on an old stereo. And then I realized I had a theme, a dramatic arc, as I was searching and trying to find my way. I thought, Wow, maybe this is a creative piece. I wasnt using it as a therapeutic piece, but I think I was going forward while I was going backward. I thought that people would be able to relate to the themes: Your parents are aging, and youre next in line.
Youve put this show on several times over the years. How has it continued to evolve?
Well, I started workshopping it and it just kept growing and growing. I gave it a test drive in San Francisco in 2005, and that went really well. When I was finished, I got caught up with Passing Strange for three years. After that was done, this producer in San Francisco asked me to perform the play for two weeks, and so I did it again. Eventually I decided I wanted to bring it home to New York so I set a date for myself at Joes Pub. That was February 2009. The artistic director saw it, but I didnt think anything would come of it. I feel like people were almost afraid of it.
Whats to be afraid of?
I think that what people might find scary is the fact that its a story about an African-American gay male, but it has absolutely nothing to do with bashing or self-hatred. Its about love and acceptance. I think that people just arent used to that. Its not exclusively about being gay. Its about a family, and music, and an era. My coming out is just a small piece in the larger arc of the story. Its not political. The language is quite guttural. In fact, Id say that my sister has become the audiences favorite character. Shes just really, um, harsh. I made my family some truly inner-city, West Philadelphia characters. The theme that joins them all together is the power of love and the power of music. And I play everyone, about 11 characters in total.
Was your real sister upset after she saw your interpretation of her character?
No, she loved it. But she did say, Aw, thats me when I was younger. Now Im not nearly as wild. In the play, shes the ultimate ghetto queen, and my brothers the archetypal heterosexual male, and so how does a young gay boy come to terms with himself? Hes cast under the shadow of a blue-collar stepfather and a sweet, doting, nurturing mother who wants her son to be artistic. This is a family that has absolutely no idea how to raise a gay child. So when I come out in the play, it becomes a story about acceptance, love and understanding.
A Boy and His Soul runs through October 18 at the Vineyard Theatre in New York City.