In Colman Domingo’s A Boy and His Soul, a young, Black gay man comes of age and comes out while growing up in a happy West Philly home filled with the soul music of the ’70s and ’80s. The music — Stevie, Marvin, Aretha, the Isleys — serves as a soundtrack for barbecues and block parties, comforting and sustaining a family through triumphs and tremendous losses. “Soul music is my sanctuary,” declares Jay, the play’s lead character, who’s based not just loosely on the playwright.
Domingo found more than just sanctuary in music and the arts. He found a lifelong calling. Considered among the greatest character actors working today, per Vulture, the Philly boy grew up to be an award-winning stage, film, and TV chameleon, with a list of credits a mile long.
A Tony nominee for his performance in the original cast of Kander & Ebb’s The Scottsboro Boys, he’s garnered his share of the spotlight with ensemble roles in Lincoln, Selma, and opposite Oscar nominees Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom — not to mention several seasons of AMC’s horror spinoff Fear the Walking Dead. Yet the performer especially cherishes the role he’s found as a writer of deeply personal works like A Boy and His Soul.
Of the solo play, which premiered in 2009 at New York’s Vineyard Theatre, Domingo says, “I honestly know that A Boy and His Soul is where I found my voice as a playwright, and where I found my purpose as a playwright, to say that this is the way I see my world, this is the way I see the inner city, which is what I wanted to start writing about.” He also wanted to write something to subvert stereotypes, “because as an actor, I would get these scripts with a character named ‘Cool Whip Tyrell,’ and I’m like, ‘I grew up in the inner city all my life, I never met a Cool Whip Tyrell. I met a Jason and a Jeremy and a Jonathan,’ and I’m like, ‘Who’s writing this stuff?'”
Sharing his frustrations with his mother, Domingo found wisdom in what she advised. “She said, ‘Don’t get frustrated about it, write about it.’ So then I was like, ‘Okay, great. I will write the stories that I know to be true.’ I grew up in the inner city. There was no drugs, no gang-banging. We had dinner at six o’clock, kids went to college, my neighbors had a house down the shore. We had a pretty normal upbringing, and I want to show that. And we’re very Black. Usually they think that you’re Cosby-fied in some way. That’s the lens of white folks. I mean, no, these are Black people who know who they are.”
The play overflows with warm recollections of Domingo’s young Black America — like spotting his fabulous cousin Siferdean out at a gay bar, or dancing to Donna Summer with sister Averie, and coming out to his brother Rick at a strip club called Poochie’s Brown Biscuits.
In every production since the play’s debut, from New York to London and Australia, Domingo has tackled the part of Jay himself. Now, with Round House Theatre’s new production, directed by Craig Wallace, for the first time the part will go to a different actor, Ro Boddie. Filmed on the Round House stage, before a small audience of crew, Boddie’s performance will be streamed as a virtual theater event, and Domingo is as excited as anyone to see another actor put his stamp on the role.
“People have asked me for years, ‘Oh, will you do that play again?’ It was a great success. I won awards, it was really lovely, and I thought, ‘Oh, no.’ Because I write things that I want to live for a while, but then I wanna move on,” he says.
“But people are like, ‘It just affects people so much. We really want you to perform it again.'”
Domingo had a different idea. “I said, ‘No, I think you should do it with another actor.’ They’re like, ‘Can it be done with another actor?’ I said, ‘Yes, it’s a character I wrote.’ I didn’t write it as Colman. I wrote it as Jay, which is my nickname when I was growing up, for Jason. But I wrote it to be played by another actor too. I think it’s a tour de force for any Black actor who can sing, dance, perform, play all these characters. I’m like, ‘I want to see some other brother do it.'”
METRO WEEKLY:I had a chance to watch your performance of the play, a video from your closing night at Vineyard Theatre. I really enjoyed it.I related to the story, but also the soundtrack. “The Sound Of Philadelphia,” is on my writing playlist, that and “Love Is the Message.” For this production, will it be going through the same soundtrack, and have you made any other changes to the script since you performed it?
COLMAN DOMINGO: I haven’t made any changes to the script. I did make a few changes for music, because of some licensing issues. We just wanted to make sure that we were always above board, and there were two songs that we couldn’t get. I had to swap out pretty quickly, because they were in the middle of tech, and I get a message from the director that we don’t have approval for a couple of songs. I couldn’t believe it. They were actually a couple of Philly International songs. I’m like, “Wait a minute. I know Kenny Gamble. Did you tell him it was me?” But we got approval for three of the songs out of the five. What I did in the show is that I used a lot of Philly soul, but I say that, “Philly soul was the standard bearer, but we did listen to other soul as well.” So I knew I had some openings, that I could use some other soul music, and I think I used a Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly song instead. I had to swap out a song and I chose something else, I forget, but it’ll be a couple surprises for people, which is good.
MW:Frankie Beverly is good. He topped a Twitter poll last year when they were trying to come up with who’s the most Black-famous person you can think of.
DOMINGO: Oh yeah? He topped the poll?
MW:From what I saw, and I can agree with that because Black folks know and love Frankie Beverly.
DOMINGO: Oh, we sure do. He’s like our cousin at the cookout.
MW:Speaking of cookouts, what inspired you to write A Boy and His Soul?
DOMINGO: I started writing A Boy and His Soul in 2004, when I was a working actor in New York, in between jobs, bartending. In between one o’clock in the morning and four o’clock in the morning, the bar was empty, and so I used that time to write. At that time I was actually going through some of the themes in the play, which was that both my parents had different illnesses and I had to go down to my childhood home to put it up for sale. I actually stumbled upon hundreds of albums in these crates, in the basement. I just thought it was odd to me that my parents left that music behind, and it took on a certain meaning for me. I sat down there, in my childhood, in my feelings, with these albums that had so much meaning.
I realized that these were literally and figuratively records of my life. So, I would take some of the songs, some of the LPs, and take them up to New York with me. I would find them on CDs and I would play them in the bar. Sometimes a song would inspire a story and sometimes a story would inspire a song. “Ooh, I need to go put that on.” So that’s why the play works together in tandem with the music, because it was built that way. I didn’t know exactly what I was writing. I didn’t know I was writing a solo show because that’s not something I ever wrote before. A Boy and His Soul was my first full-length play.
I wrote another one, which was an adaptation of Essex Hemphill’s book of stories called Brother To Brother, about Black gay men growing up in America. And that was my first thing, called Up Jumped Springtime. So I was experimenting with this. I didn’t know what it was. I just knew it had a lot of characters, my family, things like that, and theatricalizing some events.
MW:Since it is still a piece of you, how does it feel to release that to someone else’s muse?
DOMINGO: It feels cathartic, because I feel like what I was writing was not just about my family, but I was writing about, I believe, other Black queer men and their families. Growing up in the center of families who love barbecue and dancing, and being loud and ghetto girls and academics and all that. I wanted to see how it lives in your family. So this phenomenal actor Ro is taking it on.
What I loved about it is, he doesn’t play certain things the way I would, because I think, “Well, no, he’s got to find his Aunt Thelma.” I’ve built up this character. How does this person live in you? What was your neighbor like? What was your mom like? What does your mom sound like? My mother had a very soft voice. His version of his mother may not have that. I’m actually interested in it, because I’m like, “It lives as a piece of theater now. It’s not a documentary.” Although it is essentially based on my life and my experiences, I still believe that I theatricalized some events. Really, I would say there’s about 10 to 15 percent of theatrical license given to it. Like my niece’s name is not “Jalicious,” it’s Ja’Re, but it made sense that the character of my sister had a daughter named Jalicious, and I would make it a laugh line and a punchline, and operate as a piece of theater.
MW:Is there really a Cousin Siferdean?
DOMINGO: There is a Siferdean. Siferdean, that’s the realest part of it. It’s funny because when my mom was still around, I told her that I was telling this Siferdean story and she couldn’t believe it. She said, “Oh, my God.” I said, “He’s a phenomenal character. He’s so essential to the play, because the play ultimately is a love story.” I think it’s a love story for Black people who actually, even in their limited experiences with something, they still love, they choose to love. That’s what I have experienced, and which is why I wanted to tell a story like A Boy and His Soul. I’ll be very honest: in one of my first reviews — and I got some wonderful reviews in San Francisco — but the one that I didn’t love, it was very clear what she was talking about.
I’ll never forget this. This one critic, she says, “I doubt the validity of Colman Domingo’s story, because from my experience…” This was some white woman. “From my experience, from what I’ve researched is that it’s very hard to come out in the Black community and that you are shunned.” I said, “Well, you think that’s just the whole story, so my story has no validity?” And I’m telling you the truth. I’m standing here as a testament, saying that I come from love and people choose to love. Cousin Siferdean, he lived fearlessly, ferociously, in my family. I was like, “I’ve got to put him in.”
I would watch this 6’4″ drag queen walk in, shoulder pads, a white pants suit, wig, heels, huge, towering, coming into the funeral. I remember he fell out. He was so close to my Uncle David and I swear, he came in, everybody’s watching and people had hushed tones. But no one disrespected Siferdean — real name was Jeffrey, but called himself Siferdean. He was just dramatic and fabulous and fierce. But there was nothing bad said, nothing ill said. It was just like, “That’s your cousin Jeffrey, but he calls himself Siferdean.” I was like, “What was that?” But there was no more answering questions about Siferdean. We knew he existed, but I was very curious about Siferdean. I was trying to connect, “There’s something about Siferdean that’s connected to me, but I don’t know. I’m too young to know.”
MW:Thinking about your work in general, as a playwright and actor, I’m reminded of something Russell T Davies, who created Queer as Folk and It’s a Sin, said when I interviewed him a few weeks ago. He was talking about loving limitless actors and that’s what he wants in an actor, someone who’s limitless. Is that something you strive for as an actor, and if not, what is the thing you strive to be?
DOMINGO: That’s a great question. But I think what he said, that’s exactly what I am, and I know it. I’ve always been that way. I think that’s the way I came into this industry — which hearkens back to me being from Philadelphia — I don’t put limits on myself. Philadelphia is like known to be underdogs. People are like, “Don’t check for me, because I’m going to challenge you.” I don’t know where I get that from. I’m assuming I just get it from the way I was raised, but I really felt like everything that I am, I can’t have any excuses, I have to be fully invested in my whole experience and bring that into my work. So I know that I’m a fearless actor. I know that.
I know for sure, objectively, I can look at my own work and I can see all the choices I made for a character, and it’s different than another character. That character in Selma does not live in that character from Ma Rainey. That character in Ma Rainey does not live in that character from Lincoln. That character in Lincoln does not live in the character from Euphoria or Fear the Walking Dead. I know because I make all these decisions as a character actor on the way they breathe, the way they smell, the way they move their hands. What’s their sign? What do they eat? When do they wake up in the morning? I make all these decisions, because I’m a character actor from the theater, and I love building an entire character and world, and doing it in such a way that you don’t even see it anymore. I think that’s always been my goal and I feel like there are no limits to that.
MW:What do you strive for as a writer, and does that differ?
DOMINGO: I write a bit more infrequently. I always tell people the question has to be a burning question and a desire for me to write about it. There’s got to be an incident, and there’s got to be a question that keeps me up at night, and the characters are all trying to wrestle with that and figure it out. So, I know I probably frustrate my writing agent because I’m not a person that takes writer-for-hire jobs. I’m like, “Well, it doesn’t really move me.” I’ve done those jobs before and I’m never happy with them. It’s got to be something that I feel like I’m giving my soul to, and that actually I do feel like is moving the needle in some way, on our humanity. If it’s funny, if it’s weird, it can be genre, you name it. I hope that I’m creating really interesting depictions of who we are as Black folks. My work is essentially very Black, through a Black lens, and I know that. I had a friend of mine some years ago, he said, “I’m surprised your work even gets produced.” I said, “What?” He said, “Because your work is very Black. These are Black people not talking about the way white people treat them.”
MW:Yes! I’m sorry, that gets a big yes from me because I felt that watching it.
DOMINGO: It’s essentially as if white people don’t exist, because usually, Black work, and I’ll say it, even one of the people I revere, August Wilson, he’s always talking about the symptom of America. Black people, white people, and parity, our experiences. You know what I mean? But I think that I write very Black worlds and I realize that, and I’m fine with it. I’m very happy with it. It may take my work a little longer to get produced or even recognized some times, but I know it should exist, and I think that that’s just like writing about a queer character in the center of it as well. I want my characters to be so full in their experience. I hope to give a fullness of all that we are.
It’s funny because sometimes I feel like my work as a playwright is kind of ignored. As much as I’ve been produced at major theaters and been heralded and won awards and stuff like that, people forget, in a way, because I feel like my work, it’s not amplified. You can’t say I’m a “gay playwright.” You can’t say I’m a “Black playwright.” Because I’m not talking about Black stuff or gay stuff. I’m just talking about people. So it’s almost hard to just say, “Well, he’s the writer writing about Black issues,” and stuff like that. No, I’m writing about human issues and these are Black people experiencing them.
MW:Well, part of it, I think, is people love you as an actor.
DOMINGO: Yeah, they do, but I remember once, Playbill, I think it was, they were talking about “Thirty Black gay playwrights you should know” during Pride. When I tell you, I actually got offended. I don’t usually say anything, but I said, “Okay, so you’re just going to act like I’m not here.” [Laughs.] I said, “I’ve been produced at The Public Theater, the Vineyard, on Broadway.” I said, “There’s not many Black, queer playwrights who’ve been produced on Broadway and I’m one of them. So you’re just going to act like I’m not here.” She said, “I am so sorry.” I mean people who barely had any credits were on this list. I’m like, come on now. I don’t have a huge ego about things like that, but I will not be erased as well. I think erasure is real and people will try you, you know what I mean?
MW:Yeah, for sure. Now, how did you get involved in writing Summer: The Donna Summer Musical?
DOMINGO: It was based on A Boy and His Soul. Des McAnuff, I believe, read A Boy and His Soul, he didn’t see it, but he knew that he needed a collaborator to help bring Donna Summer’s story to life. You know, Donna Summer has one song in my show. But I remember, the title of The New York Times‘ review was “When Donna Summer Changed a Family’s Life,” or something. That’s so wild, and years later, I get this offer to co-write the Donna Summer book of the musical. I thought it made sense to me.
I went down for a meeting with Des, and I thought he wanted me as an actor, to do something in it. He said, “No, I would love to see what you think about coming on to write The Donna Summer Musical.” I thought, “But I’ve never written a musical.” He said, “You’re going to be a great librettist. You’re a great writer and you tell great stories. I can handle the structure, you the character and story. We work together and we teach each other.” So we began that process and it was healthy, it was good. And we created something which I believe was a piece of commercial theater. I don’t think it was trying to disrupt anything in the American theater, but I think it was made to have a good time and to take you to disco heaven. And I feel very proud of it.
MW:And it celebrates Donna Summer, who should be celebrated.
DOMINGO: Yes, absolutely! She should always be celebrated. Her family has become like my family, her daughter, Brooklyn, has become one of my good friends.
MW:Turning now to a movie that you did not mention, because you mentioned Ma Rainey and you mentioned Lincoln. I think those are great movies, but I was going to ask you about If Beale Street Could Talk, because I love that movie. The talent involved in that is really, I think, phenomenal. What did you take away from working with director Barry Jenkins and with Regina King, who won an Oscar playing opposite you in the film?
DOMINGO: I was just with Regina two days ago. I had her on my virtual show, my Bottomless Brunch show, and we were talking about that experience. The word that I always like to use about that whole experience is “grace.” I feel like there was so much grace around all of it, and I think it had to stem from James Baldwin’s text to Barry Jenkins’ gentle hand as a director and working with Regina.
Regina and I, we both say that we didn’t have to do a lot of hard work or interpretation with the work. We just had to let the work resonate within us. Like even the way we became husband and wife, there was not a lot of, “Oh, so how are we going to touch each other? How are we going to do this?” The decisions were made just very elegantly, where even that scene — where we’re standing there dancing before the other family comes in — that was just the moment that Barry captured, he turned the cameras on. I think he gave us a direction like, “What would you guys be doing before they came over?” And I said, “I’d put on some music, and grab my baby.” And she was like “Yeah.” We started, and it just happened naturally. All that was, we knew we were bringing in our families, ourselves. I feel like I look at that and I see my parents dancing, or my auntie and my uncle, something like that. So I feel like what a blessing it is to be in a James Baldwin adaptation, and portray these people that you love so much. I love the idea that I’ve played such a succession of loving Black men in the cinema, and I’m very proud of that. And he’s complex too, because he talks about, “I’ll rob too, I’ll do what I need to do.”
MW:And he does do what he needs to do.
DOMINGO: He does, and that’s the men that I grew up with, these blue-collar men. I feel honored that I get to play these guys. I get to let them be the superheroes in their lives. That [film], maybe I didn’t mention it because I feel like maybe it means so much to me. I feel like if, Lord knows, I have other films coming out and I’m going to keep working, but if Beale Street was one of the last things I did, I think I would have been cool. Certain things you feel like, “I could put a bow on that. If that was it, cool. That was good.”
MW:Well, luckily, it wasn’t the last thing. I mean the last thing I saw was Ma Rainey, and your character Cutler is another loving man.
DOMINGO: Hey, I brushed my hair down like Cutler’s today. I actually just pulled this all down with some pomade today.
MW:You guys were a very convincing band. What kind of work were you doing to hone that chemistry, all while playing instruments?
DOMINGO: That was epic because we had a two-week rehearsal process, which is rare in film. You get no rehearsal usually. So we had two weeks to get to know each other, to do some tangible work, to actually just get into the meat of it. Also, because I’m the band leader, but I’m also the social secretary of any show that I do, I will [say], “Hey, you guys, we’re going out to dinner tonight. We’re having dinner, I’m going to make a reservation.” I just make it happen, because usually, you know it wants to happen but people are too shy. I’m a Sagittarius, so I’m like, “Yo! We’re doing it. I’m going to make the reservation. You coming? Great. You’ll be there, right, Viola?” So I organized it for the band twice, because I thought that’s what we needed. I know that — in the theater as well — a lot of the work is in the rehearsal and the production values, the production elements of it, but you gotta break bread together. You gotta know each other’s hearts. You gotta know how you feel, where you hurt, all that stuff about your children, about your families, who’d you leave behind to come and do this work? So you have this sense of play and respect for each other, so that you can go anywhere.
I think that’s why we became such a band. I think that’s why anyone who recognized it sees so much trust between the actors, between me and Chad and Michael [Potts] and Viola and Glynn [Turman]. It was all there because we built it, and it was a strong foundation that we still have. We just did some press today, where every time I see them on a Zoom, we just can’t wait to be with each other because we do feel like that we are truly connected and we’re connected for life because of this film.
Even more so, and it is bittersweet, knowing that it was Chad’s last film, and I feel incredibly blessed that I was able to work with him and Viola and Glynn and Michael. We became such a true band. It’s just people, working people, who are excellent. People who are like — and I’m not shy about it — “Yeah, we’re all really good at what we do.” I’m going to be bold and say that. I’ll say, “Yes, I’m good at what I do.” And then you watch all these people together, who are brilliant, coming in. It’s like you’ve got Michael Jordan, everybody at the height of their careers, all being like, “Let’s do this together.” That’s exactly it, it feels like that.
MW:You also had great text. You mentioned with Baldwin having great text. I spent a lot of this past week watching Genius: Aretha, and Suzan-Lori Parks wrote a lot of that. She also wrote The United States vs. Billie Holiday. And Kemp Powers is having a great year with Soul and One Night in Miami. I feel like it’s a good year for Black authors in Hollywood.
DOMINGO: I agree, because I think that they have finally realized who tells the most complex stories about who we are. I think finally we’re being given the keys to the kingdom, to be very honest, and I think that what we didn’t know, we will learn when it comes to structure and form and things like that. Suzan-Lori Parks is a brilliant writer. All she needed was help with form, to figure out how to tell a story in the television space and film and things like that. I feel like television has changed, because it demands such interesting, critical thinking and thought with characters and character arcs and storytelling. So, who do you need to do that? You need playwrights, and playwrights need work.
MW:Now, unfortunately, I can’t ask you in detail about Fear the Walking Dead, because I don’t watch it.
DOMINGO: And I don’t want to answer. [Laughs.]
MW:But will your character Victor be in season seven?
DOMINGO: Yes. I can say that. He will be in season seven. I think what people have been learning about Victor Strand is that he’s now going to become Victor Strand without apology.
MW:Well, I don’t watch Walking Dead, but I do love horror, so I will be watching the upcoming Candyman. Who do you play in that?
DOMINGO: His name is William Burke and he holds a lot of the history of the Cabrini-Green projects. That’s all I can say. I’m in a lot of things that I can’t even tell you about, isn’t that funny?
MW:So we’ll end with questions that you can answer. What movies or TV shows scare you? I mean, do you watch Walking Dead? Does that stuff scare you?
DOMINGO: I don’t. I don’t watch any of that stuff. I watch things like Veneno. Have you seen Veneno?
MW:I loved Veneno.
DOMINGO: I watch things like that, that are disruptive to television. I thought it was the most brilliant series that I’ve seen this year. It was Lee Daniels who called me and told me, “Have you seen that?” I was like, “No.” He said, “Get off the phone with me right now and watch it.” So I loved that he told me to, because it’s epic television.
MW:So then your last question. Right now, what’s inspiring you?
DOMINGO: I think it’s — I don’t know how this sounds — but I think I’ve been experiencing people slowing down. That people have been taking more time to go for walks. I love looking outside and seeing families go for walks together and I know that only happened in the beginning of the pandemic. It’s still happening, even as things are picking back up and everything. Watching an elderly woman ride a bike with her granddaughter and taking time in the pandemic has been, honestly, the most beautiful thing. Like seeing at 6 o’clock at night, people connecting, going for walks together. It’s like, what, are we in the 1950s? We never had time for that before, and I think that really inspires me. We can take time and do these things that really matter, which is just connecting.
I grab a buddy and go for a hike twice a week, and I never hiked before. Now I’m just like, “I want to go outside.” It’s the only way we can really socialize and be socially distant and get to stay healthy. Go for a hike, go out in nature with somebody, and we just talk about anything and everything. There’s no agenda. There’s no time on it. We’re just like, the hike is going to take five miles, so the time that it takes to get there, the time to get back, there’s no rushing back to get to an appointment. You leave open that three or four hours, and hit it. And I’ll usually come down and sit by this little creek that’s by the park, in Griffith Park, relax a minute and just think. And then I’ll get back out and start to deal with the day. But it’s inspiring to be a bit slower and to watch people [doing] a bit more of slow living. That inspires me.
Round House Theater’s production of A Boy and His Soul is streaming on-demand through April 18. Tickets are $32.50, including processing fees. Visit www.roundhousetheatre.org.
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André Hereford covers arts and entertainment for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @here4andre.