ITHACA, NY -- After 570 days (count ’em), live theater is back in the house, finally –– at the Kitchen Theatre, with an entertaining solo show, “A Boy and His Soul.” And safe viewing is the watchword: 40% of the seats are left open to allow comfortable distancing, and patrons are required to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative test result. And of course, everyone is masked.
Now that you’re reassured, get ready for some classic soul, R&B, and disco tunes –– music that for some of us never gets old. Equally true for Colman Domingo, the playwright, who’s sharing his own story of growing up in West Philly in the 1970s. (The multitalented Domingo performed the role when it premiered at the Vineyard in 2009; the play won several awards, including the Lucille Lortel for Best Solo Show.)
Here the performer is smooth talking and swing stepping, the energetic and warmly personable Jaquay Lamar Thomas, as Jay, a self-described nerd, who’s revisiting his family’s former Philadelphia home, which is about to be sold. The action takes place in the basement, where he discovers boxes of old albums, the music of his youth and the soundtrack for the raucous, loving life of his family.
As JJ narrates his memories, recalling backyard barbecues and musical battle royales, we’re nodding along to the refrains and rhythms of The Temptations, James Brown, Glady Knight, Curtis Mayfield, Earth, Wind, & Fire, Switch…and of course the incomparable Marvin Gaye. (With a little Tom Jones thrown in, for Moms.)
JJ’s story is about growing up Black and gay, when that wasn’t exactly cool, and how his family accepts him, each in their own distinct way –– his fiercely devoted mother; his mensch of a stepfather, Clarence; and his outrageous, outspoken, chain-smoking sister Averie. Thomas transforms into each of them easily, comically, lovingly; his spirited performance carries us past the play’s ever-hovering excess nostalgia into real emotion for those cherished and times past. (Double-dare you to resist Thomas singing and dancing to “You’re the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me.”)
If these harmonies of the ’70s and ’80s don’t provide your own personal time machine, well, that’s kind of sad, but still, Thomas’ engaged performance will carry you. And the production’s ambience is attractively crafted, refreshingly, with a creative team that’s entirely artists of color.
The well-paced direction is by Stephanie Weeks; the all-encompassing sound by Chris Lane (who’s work we’ve heard here before). Victor En Yu Tan effectively lights JJ’s memories on that basement set by Marie Laster, with its faded floral wallpaper and scuffed wooden steps. Costumer Deletris Bryant makes sure JJ is stylish and smooth (as he’s now, after several rites of passage, a man comfortable in his gayness).
JJ has discovered his family’s abandoned albums, but he too leaves them behind –– he’s internalized their meaning, these records of their lives.
With this show, the Kitchen, now under new leadership, is off to an auspicious season. And look forward to November’s show, “The Thanksgiving Play,” a satirical comedy by Native American Larissa FastHorse. (I saw it in New York a few seasons back and found it delightful.)
“A Boy and His Soul,” by Colman Domingo, directed by Stephanie Weeks. Starring Jaquay Lamar Thomas. At the Kitchen Theatre, 417 W. State/MLK, Jr. St., Ithaca. Wednesday-Sunday, through Oct. 3. Tickets at 607-272.0570.
Barbara Adams, a regional arts journalist, teaches writing at Ithaca College.