Soul Survivor

A nostalgic song-and-dance show, in which music is one man's heartbeat

There's something weirdly Nick Hornby about Colman Domingo's autobiographical solo show, A Boy and His Soul. The flamboyant African-American Philadelphia native, with his penchant for ballet dancing and toned pectorals, might have as much in common with the pasty, cynical, list-making soccer louts that populate Hornby's novels as Gloria Gaynor has with Fatboy Slim. But Rob Gordon, the main character in Hornby's novel High Fidelity, would no doubt share Domingo's excitement at finding a crate of moth-eaten 45s and LPs in the basement of his childhood home.

The nostalgia-driven love affair with old vinyl is equally strong for the Domingos and Gordons of this world. It's just that they express that love differently: You would never catch a Hornby protagonist doing the Robot or the Hustle, grabbing his crotch Michael Jackson-style or falling to his knees like James Brown. But Domingo is so transported by the harmonies he rediscovers in that long-lost crate that he cannot help himself: Music — and soul music in particular — is more than simply the soundtrack to Domingo's life. It's part of his DNA.

The fact that music is a staple of societies everywhere has long suggested that humans are intrinsically musical. But recent studies have shown that music is not simply a product of cultural nurturing — it's part of our biological nature. Norman M. Weinberger, a professor of neurobiology and behavior at the University of California, Irvine, for instance, has found that basic musical actions are inherently known rather than taught. Perhaps that's why music, like the most basic of all childhood instincts — smell, for instance — has such powerful associations with memory. “Scientific evidence clearly demonstrates that humans are ready to engage in musical activities from birth,” writes Weinberger. “We are 'wired' for music.”

They don't come more wired — or wiry for that matter — than Domingo. Dressed in designer jeans, sneakers, and a tight-fitting singlet designed to accentuate a pristine dancer's physique, Domingo struts his funky stuff like there's no tomorrow, barely catching his breath to recount the story of growing up in 1970s and '80s Philadelphia before lapsing into euphoric, fleet-footed refrains from the greatest hits of Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, and other soul songbook staples. Every melody in Domingo's basement has a pungent memory attached to it. Aretha Franklin's “Daydreaming” makes Domingo think about his mother's dreams and dashed hopes; his brother's Saturday night “primping for his pimping” in front of the mirror brings on a burst of the Isley Brothers' Afrodisiac “Between the Sheets”; meanwhile, Diana Ross' “I'm Coming Out” is Domingo's own childhood anthem. “Somehow I think that wouldn't be the way to pick up girls,” recalls Domingo. “But it sure made me feel real good.”

Nostalgia is usually defined as an idealized view of the past. But Domingo's soul music- inspired life story, though intermittently glitter-sprayed and golden-crotched, is hardly rose-tinted. Like the rise and fall of the Philadelphia soul movement — which, though perhaps less celebrated today than the Detroit and Memphis scenes, gave birth to the likes of the Delphonics, the Stylistics, and the Three Degrees before falling apart — Domingo candidly recounts his own ups and downs. The performer's loving, infectiously funny, and frequently uncomplimentary caricatures of family members are laced with social commentary about growing up gay in the machismo-driven “Man's World” of African-American soul culture.

That being said, there's only so much of a thirtysomething guy lip-syncing and strutting to old records one can handle in a single evening. The comic subtlety of scenes such as the one at the 1979 Earth, Wind & Fire concert in which an impressionable Domingo, aged 9, is blinded by the sight of “glitter, lights, and crotch” perfectly captures the growing boy's developing sexual interests. But moments like the one outside a Philadelphia sex club years later, when Domingo decides to tell his brother he's gay, are heavy-handed and as mawkishly sentimental as his mother's Disney-esque mantra “Keep a song in your heart and you will always find your way.” Ultimately, Domingo takes the lyric — “I'm coming out/ I want the world to know/ Got to let it show” — a little too literally.

More than many other genres of music, soul — largely because of its merging of spiritual and secular musical styles and themes — is capable of capturing the tensions, and the conflicting harmonies and dissonances, of human existence. It's called “soul music” for a reason, after all — it's the ultimate confessional, all about baring one's soul. As a result, soul lovers can easily get so caught up in the music's sweeping sounds and ardent messages that they risk losing their appetite for irony as well as more “pedestrian” elements of their lives, namely structure and balance. But when it comes to making great art, structure and balance are every bit as important as soul. Marvin would be the first to attest to the fact that hearing something through the grapevine is often more powerful than yelling straight out what's going on. Perhaps Domingo should take a lesson from the sullen Rob Gordons out there and temper his nostalgic outpouring with a tidy list of his top-five soul hits.

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