RECORD NUMBERS: Colman Domingo's one-man show on growing up immersed in soul music and the Philadelphia Sound, A Boy and His Soul, has run off-Broadway and in London; it comes to Philly for the first time this spring.
“I’ve finally become one of those actors where people go, ‘Oh, you look familiar!’” says Colman Domingo. A theater veteran from West Philly, Domingo had breakthrough stage roles in Passing Strange and Chicago, and a Tony-nominated role in The Scottsboro Boys made way for his more recent film work, such as Lincoln, 42, and The Butler.
This May, Domingo brings his acclaimed one-man show A Boy and His Soul to Philly, where it all began. The show details Colman’s upbringing in '70s and '80 Philly, his family, and his deep love of soul music, which became the soundtrack to his many life events — including his coming out. Though the show ran Off-Broadway and in London, this will be the first time A Boy and His Soul comes here. “The homecoming in Philadelphia will be the ultimate production for me. If the door closes on the production there, I’m fine. If it goes to Broadway or gets filmed or something, who knows? But for me, it’s always been the ultimate goal to bring it home to Philly.”
We talked to Domingo about his start in the business, some of his favorite soul records, and how the Philly sound has helped shape his entire life.
City Paper: You went to Temple for photojournalism?
Colman Domingo: Yes, I really thought I was gonna be a photojournalist and go to war torn countries and take photos, go to Somalia and things like that, but I took an acting class and it changed everything.
I watched an interview where you said before you took acting classes, you went to the library and started reading about acting.
CD: Well, the first introduction to acting was in a class at Temple and from that class, my teacher said that he thought I had some gifts, some talent. So, from there, I actually quietly started taking two classes at the Walnut Street Theatre school. But still, that’s very much introduction to acting. That doesn’t give you what you need to actually get practice to be a professional actor. So I moved to San Francisco, then I started auditioning. My first job, I didn’t know what they were talking about. My director would say, “We’re gonna block the scene.” So, I would go home and read books on Uta Hagen and [Constantin] Stanislavski, just figure it out and not say anything. Like “stage right,” I didn’t know where stage right was or stage left, I was in a classroom setting. Most of what I’ve learned was pretty much from working.
I always think it’s interesting when people who do it on their own. I always think there’s something special about going out and learning it by yourself.
CD: I think that there’s something to that because these days, I go and I’ll teach at a university or do some workshops and these students who are sitting in a conservatory, they’re really looking for “the right answers” or something. And I think it’s because I’ve learned by doing and by trial-and-error, I didn’t really learn from a classroom setting, that I think that’s really given me a lot of tools that helps me, I don’t know, just take care of myself in this business. It’s turned me into less of an actor and more of an artist, as well. Because you do have to have that grit, that figuring the stuff out on your own that you need as an artist. You can’t just sit in a classroom and expect to be given everything and then go out into the world. And then you’re confused when the world doesn’t operate like in a classroom. Here’s a guy who just sort of making it up as he goes along and failing and figuring it out, and I believe there’s something to that and why I’ve had such longevity in this business, too.
A Boy and His Soul is all about music, and especially at that time [the '70s and '80s], that was the golden years of soul music in Philly. What was it like growing up in that era?
CD: You know, it’s funny, ‘cause I think anyone who’s living in the “golden years” of something doesn’t realize it’s the “golden years” until later. [Laughs.] My musical influences were all from my older brother, my older sister, and my parents. I was actually looking at it as a study. My formative years were the late '70s, early '80s, and that soul music was very different from the late '60s, early '70s. We were really finding who we were as African-Americans, especially after the civil rights movement, it was becoming more Afrocentric. The music was such an expression of who we were, which is always why I go back to it, too.
I listen to music now, I listen to Beyonce, but my staples is the music that I grew up with, because I think there’s great storytelling in the songs. Immediately, I’m thinking of “Sideshow” [by Blue Magic].
It’s like they really took their time laying out a feeling. Guys were not afraid to sing in a high falsetto, higher than any woman. Who does that anymore? Especially the Philly sound. People always ask me, “What’s the difference between Philly soul and L.A. soul?” And it’s a huge difference.
Even why I sing the way I do — I’m not a trained singer, but it took me a while [to adjust to being] a legit Broadway singer.
Because naturally, I sing like Teddy Pendergrass. Naturally, I sing like The O’Jays, because that’s what I understood. Sometimes, you could sing a note, but also you could shout that note. And shouting was just as important, because it’s a feeling. [Briefly breaks into Pendergrass' “You Can’t Hide From Yourself.”]
A lot of time, these guys didn’t know music, they didn’t know what a note was; they knew the feeling and they knew what was required, because it was natural. It came from the churches. And I love the fact that the Philly sound had lush orchestration, with the violins and the backup singers and the horn section. From what I know, they were actually recorded in the studio with all the instruments there, like they do with jazz or opera. And that’s something that doesn’t happen anymore; you just press a key on the keyboard and there it is.
I love that it’s so deeply Philadelphia. Everything, from the way they sound to the way they dress. When I get dressed up, people know. They’re, like, “Oh, you from Philly.” Because we wear a little more flash, big hats and a white coat, but it’s old-school Philly and I love it. It was the “golden years,” it really was.
I love watching videos of The O’Jays and their dance moves.
CD: It’s out of control! Like The O’Jays or The Spinners, the way they’re doing their choreography — it’s so flashy and sexy and male, but it’s also very Broadway jazz hands, in a way. It’s pure showmanship. And that’s the thing I think Philly soul has taught me, as well, showing me how to be a showman, since I was a kid.
What were some other songs at that time that just blew your mind?
CD: I think the songs that blow everyone’s mind. You can’t go wrong with anything Earth, Wind & Fire, or “Fire” by The Ohio Players. But even the simple ballads, like “You’re The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me” by Gladys Knight & The Pips.
That song I actually use in A Boy and His Soul, because it’s very representational of my parents' love for each other. So in the show, some things, of course, didn’t happen, but I use the music to say something bigger in their story. I wanted to express their unyielding love for each other, and I mesh it in such a way that Gladys Knight becomes my mother’s voice and I sing a duet as my dad.
A Boy and His Soul is just you, it couldn’t be more you. How important is it to have that outlet as an artist?
CD: I think it’s very important, it’s always been important to create opportunities, not just for myself, but for others, as well. No one can tell us that we can’t create, that’s the one power we have. So I really step in and use that power. I’m just not a person who sits around and waits for the phone to ring, I’ll get on the phone and make things happen. And I think it’s a sense that I have a lot of power in my career and I can say what I will do and won’t do. I guess I’ve built a career where I really did make career choices.
I’m very blessed to have a rent controlled apartment in New York. I can actually say that I don’t have to do what I don’t want to do just for money. Money’s important, but I think more than anything, I’m very proud of the work I’m able to do or be a part of. So, when I do films, they’re meaningful. I’m very blessed to have never played a stereotypical drug dealer or something like that. I’ve done movies like Lincoln and The Butler and I’m very proud of those things, because those were things that I sought out.
And between that, even when I’m on set of a film, my typewriter – “my typewriter,” I sound like I’m an ancient old man – my computer is always open and I’m usually creating another script. I’ve created one autobiographical piece, but the others are inspired by things, they’re not my story. So, I think it’s a great balance. I’ve been doing more and more film work, but the time that I have on film sets, I’m writing plays. It’s keeping my love and my passion for theater.
Theater, as you know, takes a lot of time. Now that I’ve been in this business for 23 years, I’m very particular about where I spend that time. So, if I’m gonna be in a theater for eight shows a week and rehearsing for 50 hours a week, it’s gotta be something I really, really care about. So I say “No” much more than I say “Yes,” because I know I can also create something that’s what I would like to say. That’s very powerful to me. I’m very blessed to have sought that out for myself and I try to inspire others to do the same, because that’s the only power a creative artist has. We can’t sit around and wait.
A Boy and His Soul, May 23-June 22, $46-$59, Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St., 215-985-0420, philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.
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