A Boy and His Soul by Colman Domingo, Kitchen Theatre, through Oct 3 (kitchentheatre.org)
Part way in to A Boy and His Soul, Jay (our narrator) sits under the new moon in the yard of their West Philly home, as his mama opens her pocketbook to receive blessings of “New Money, New Experiences and New Dreams!” Nine year-old Jay, pocketbook-less, asks how he can receive these blessings; just open your hands, his mama replies.
And so it is with this gentle, rocking, prayer of a show, that the audience need only open our hands—and more to the point—our ears, to receive a multitude of blessings. For the boy’s “soul” is not only the usual but the music he grows up with in the 70s and 80s Philly of his Black childhood and adolescence, the soul music that Philly and Detroit and other capitols of funk are producing and sending over the airwaves and onto LPS, 45s and 8-tracks.
Colman Domingo’s solo play about growing up working-class and gay, about adult loss and letting go, about constructing family on a day-to-day basis out of a little money and a lot of love graces the stage of the Kitchen Theatre as they open up their 30th season under new leadership. Warm, hilarious, and inviting in the hands of actor Jaquay Lamar Thomas and director Stephanie Weeks, it’s a perfect way to return to live, in-person theatre in the Kitchen’s beautiful Percy Browning auditorium.
Aretha, Stevie Wonder, The Stylistics, Marvin Gaye, Teddy Prendergast, James Brown (and a latter dive into disco) weave their way into the show as more than nostalgia, more than period. They provide a language, and a beat to the lives of Jay’s siblings—the strutting, loud, attitude-prone sis Averie, and his cologne-splashing older brother Rick. Step-dad Clarence prefers “It’s a Man’s World” to young Jay’s classical violin practice.
But when Averie drags Jay to an Earth, Wind and Fire concert, he’s a convert to soul as 20 men in “shimmering skintight drags…lights, glitter and crotch” send him to heaven.
Thomas clearly tracks Jay’s progress from 9 year-old “bad-ass nerd” through his teens and 20s, while drawing with strong strokes the sassy Averie, the slightly truculent Rick, the dreamy, hopeful Evie, and his stomping, working-class step-dad Clarence, along with numerous aunts, uncles and others. Precise physicality and vocal shifts make every person pop.
The play not only celebrates a family’s progress but mourns the passing, of the neighborhood, and the imminent passing of the three siblings’ parents. A full arc of emotion.
Thomas vibrantly welcomes us into the story (even conducting a sing-a-long.) The pacing is sure under Weeks’ subtle direction. Design is spot on, the half-finished basement (a wooden staircase descending from wood beam rafters) that transforms into a disco floor (scenic designer Marie Laster); a range of lighting both “concert” style and subtly emotional (lighting designer Victor En Yu Tan); just the right clothing (costume designer Deletris Bryant), and the skillful soundtrack that is almost an actor in itself (sound designer Chris Lane.) (Notably, the entire creative team is people of color.)
Soulful, uplifting, full of light, laughter and a few tears, A Boy and His Soul is a great way to return to theater inside, in person. Catch it while you can!