Colman Domingo’s “A Boy and His Soul,” which Pandora Productions is offering in a superb streaming production over the next two weekends, is a one-person play. But that’s really just a technicality of casting: only one actor occupies the stage. But that actor is the brilliant Tony Smith, in a virtuosic turn that confirms him as one of the city’s finest performers.
The play is Domingo’s theatrical memoir of growing up as a bespectacled violin-playing nerd in West Philadelphia. As it opens, the 30-something Domingo has taken on the job of organizing the sale of his parents’ home after they decide to move back to their Southern roots. The Philadelphia house is cluttered with memories: an ancient, artificial Christmas tree, a rusty Easy-Bake oven, an old rotary phone, a disco ball.
But most important of all, the house still holds Domingo’s musical memories — stored on 8-track tapes and crates of vinyl LPs that, over the course of the play, will serve to prod his memories of his mother’s cooking, of butterbeans and backyard barbecue, Baptist preachers, family reunions and fried chicken dinners.
The recorded soundtrack to this play is as much a character as Domingo’s father and mother, his sister Kate and all the other folks in Domingo’s life.
And Smith rides the soundtrack like a masterful DJ. There are moments where he recounts the names of artists as if he were preaching in wonderment a liturgy of soul: “Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway, The Sylvers — big-ass Afros.” And as the music and his memories intertwine, the story weaves a tapestry filled with subtle wit, broad humor and a rich sense of time, place, and family.
The play is filled with anecdotal episodes about the tensions and joys experienced by a young man with a nerdish interest in classical violin in a world filled with tumultuous rhythms. And it’s an especially complicated time for a youngster growing up gay. But Domingo’s story pulses with joy and affection. It’s a story that requires a mercurial shapeshifting, with formidable acting chops to navigate its crosscurrents — and Smith inhabits the part as if he’d created it himself.
Like every performing arts company in the world, Pandora Productions was forced to pivot last spring when the coronavirus hit. In an interview, Michael J. Drury, the company’s artistic director, said that he and the company’s board considered a range of options, including staging a season of plays with smallish casts of two or three.
Eventually, though, they settled on a season of four one-person plays. It’s a decision that was largely driven by safety considerations, but also turns out to be a kind of symbolic response to a year in which the world has collectively experienced an unprecedented kind of isolation.
For Drury and company, it’s also been a season of innovation and experiment. This is the first time during Drury’s tenure that the company has staged one-person productions. It’s a challenge for any actor to work solo, without anyone else on stage to share the energy and rhythm of a script. An edited “filmic” approach might have minimized some of the challenges, said Drury.
But he and the company have been committed to hewing to the principles of live theater.
“It’s an ephemeral art,” Drury said.
The company has never videotaped its productions, because for Drury that runs counter to the essential aesthetic of theater. And, though this season’s productions have been a learning experience, Drury observed that he and his crew (including three cameras) are striving to create a production that has the urgency and immediacy of live theater.
“I’m not directing the play for video,” Drury said. “It really is a production that we just happen to be videotaping and are delivering virtually rather than directing it to the camera.”
Drury noted that he’s received a bit of criticism about that decision, which was made early in the season. A few weeks back, said Drury, he considered changing his approach. But when his husband, Lane, overheard the conversation he urged Drury to stay the course, saying, “I actually enjoy that it looks like a theatrical production and the actors are not facing the camera.”
You can judge for yourself by screening the production.
In March, Pandora’s season continues with “Tru,” a play by Jay Presson Allen based on the writings of Truman Capote. In May, Drury himself will star in the premiere of a commissioned work, “I Profundis,” by Jack Wallen, about Oscar Wilde’s time in prison after his conviction for “gross indecency.” •
“A Boy and His Soul”
January 15-17 and 22-24
Streaming on demand
Tickets for the first weekend are discounted 50% and will be available after midnight Thursday using the discount code: C-PandoraGift.