County of Kings. Written and performed by Lemon Andersen. At the Public Theater.
A Boy and His Soul. Written and performed by Colman Domingo. At the Vineyard Theater.
I recently showed my students some clips of documentary and political theatre, including Moisés Kaufman’s The Laramie Project and Anna Deveare Smith’s Fires in the Mirror. One of the discussion-prompting questions I asked was about the function of Smith’s solo format. Why play all of those characters yourself instead of bringing other actors in? I was hoping for answers to go in two directions: first, the economic advantages of a solo show. Single performers and modest production demands have helped monologists carve a niche for themselves in US commercial and not-for-profit theatre programming, and artistic directors love solo performers; there’s very little overhead, they can easily perform in small spaces, and there are very few people who need to be paid.
The other thread of conversation I was hoping for had to do with Brecht’s idea of “alienation,” which I have written about here before, and which my class had been introduced to a couple of sessions prior to our “political theatre” discussion. In Smith’s work, the format highlights both the performer’s virtuosity (she plays many characters) and the origin of the content (generated from interviews with a variety of subjects). This focus on the process of theatre making is, arguably, a distancing technique, a way to constantly remind the audience that there is an intelligence and an agenda behind the work they are seeing. This kind of awareness, ideally, encourages active engagement with the material rather than a passive, “entertain me” attitude.
With a little prompting, both of these benefits of Smith’s solo work came up, raising the participation grades of a couple of students and allowing me a mental pat on the back. One student, however, asserted that the one-woman format seemed narcissistic, particularly in a show with many characters. While some argued that Smith might have felt that it was more practical to maintain direct control of the characterizations of her subjects, other felt that the format screamed “Look at me! Look at how great I am! Look at what important work I’m doing!” I don’t find that characterization to be fair, but it does raise some interesting questions about the motivations and insecurities of solo performers, and about the ways they are perceived by audiences and potential audiences.
While it’s no great revelation that ego and narcissism are often part of the mix of motivations that drives performers, the comments of my students were on my mind as I read the playbill for Lemon Andersen’s County of Kings, now playing at the Public Theater. Andersen’s bio describes him as “a critically acclaimed and award-winning renaissance artist,” and waxes rhapsodic about “rave reviews,” “sold out shows,” “standing ovations,” and “stellar performance[s].” A couple of days later, when I saw Colman Domingo’s A Boy and His Soul at the Vineyard Theatre, I noticed that, according to his bio, he had never just “appeared” in anything; he had always “starred”; every role Domingo has ever had, it seems, has been a “starring role.”
Such language in actor bios probably doesn’t strike most audience members as strange or significant, but that’s because most audience members don’t realize that actors generally submit these bios themselves. If it’s a publicist-embellished bio, it’s because that’s what the actor wanted. If someone is blowing smoke up the actor’s ass, it’s usually the actor himself.
None of which means anything. Vanity and a love of the spotlight, whether brought about by a surplus of confidence or by masked insecurities, are not universal among artists, but they’re pretty common. It should come as no surprise that most performers want to be stars, that they want your applause and admiration. Whether applying their craft to the task of transforming themselves or to the task of revealing themselves, a performer should want to be on stage. Why ask hundreds of people to spend their time and money sitting in the dark watching you talk if you don’t believe, or at least want to believe, that you are worth it. The figure of the humble genius is largely a myth.
I don’t know that I would call either Lemon Andersen or Colman Domingo a genius, but when each is at his best, he is a star indeed.
An HBO special waiting to happen, County of Kings is long stretches of pretty good punctuated by moments of brilliance. Andersen is familiar to fans of Def Comedy Jam as the performer with the most appearances on the broadcast version of that show. Drawing on that background, Kings is a hybrid of a spoken-word and more conventional memoir-style solo performance, and it is clear that Andersen is more comfortable with the former. The show’s undeniable high points are when he is spitting and rhyming, exhibiting the angry bravado and hip-hop inflected energy associated with spoken word. During the more conventionally dramatic passages, the acting sometimes feels forced, as if the performer is struggling to convey the emotion he feels his story deserves.
The story itself is a traumatic coming-of-age tale that is often harrowing, if not entirely unfamiliar. A light-skinned Latino with a complicated family tree, Andersen grew up in Brooklyn with a loving but heroin-addicted mother who died of AIDS; his mother’s boyfriend, who taught him how to break into cars to steal parts; and an older brother who wouldn’t let him come along on graffiti-tagging adventures. Eventually, Lemon impregnated his too-young girlfriend, began to deal drugs, and landed in prison not once, but twice. Along the way he came into contact with the seeds of his future career as a performer: being cheered on by a crowd at Coney Island who watched him dance to disco outside an amusement park ride, a brief stint taking ballet classes with an outreach program run by Eliot Feld, the discovery of books, politics, and storytelling while he was in prison.
Colman Domingo’s A Boy and His Soul begins as Domingo visits his childhood home, which is about to be sold. He discovers a box of records and, shocked that his parents would leave them behind, relives a series of memories linked to the songs he remembers best. Reminiscing about these songs and the memories they conjure, he paints a picture of the west Philadelphia neighborhood where he grew up, of his tight-knit but frequently at-each-other’s-throats family, and of the challenges of growing up gay (and fem) in hypermasculine black America.
Domingo is a warm and generous presence on stage, and blends equal parts skill and charisma to keep his tale engaging. There are slack passages here and there, when the story becomes too internal—he almost seems to shut the audience out as he reminisces. Other moments have begun to take on the rote, slightly forced feeling of a show long in development, as if some of the monologues have lost their power over Domingo and he is now delivering simply because it is his job to do so, and no longer because they are personal to him. This would likely not have been noticeable were it not for a fortuitous technical problem that forced the performer to banter with the audience while his microphone was being replaced. The full force of Domingo’s personality and spontaneity flooded the theatre like oxygen for those couple of minutes before he returned to the good, but not-quite-as-good delivery of his written text.
Neither Andersen’s story nor Domingo’s is entirely unfamiliar. Looking over my descriptions above I see how mere plot descriptions are almost irrelevant. The power of these stories is in how personal they are for the performers, and for segments of the audience. At each show, audience members here and there would laugh or shout out with recognition when the performer mentioned a place they knew from their own childhoods, or a personality that could have been their uncle or, most powerfully, a song that had always made them want to dance. Both of these remarkable performers are valuable in part because they bring distinctive talents and perspectives to the often too-homogenous stages of New York’s institutional theatres. They are also valuable because they attract to these theatres the kinds of audiences whom are not normally accustomed to seeing themselves reflected on stage. My favorite moments in these shows were those to which I couldn’t relate, but to which many of the people around me obviously could.
After each of the performances, I saw audience members texting and calling friends and family members to tell them what they’d seen. And during the intermission for County of Kings the women behind me talked about buying their nephew a ticket to the show. “He should see this. He could do this.” And if there is some vanity that comes along with that, if these actors allow themselves to love the spotlight a little too much, I say that is only their due.
County of Kings. Written and performed by Lemon Andersen; developed and directed by Elise Thoron; sets by Peter Ksander and Douglas Stein; lighting by Jane Cox and Lily Fossner; sound by Rob Kaplowitz and Matt Stein. Presented by Spike Lee, Culture Project, Steve Colman, Jayson Jackson and Tom Wirtshafter, in association with the Public Theater at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street through November 8. Tickets: $25–$50, 212-967-7555, or www.publictheater.org
A Boy and His Soul. Written and performed by Colman Domingo; directed by Tony Kelly; choreographed by Ken Roberson; sets by Rachel Hauck; costumes by Toni-Leslie James; lighting by Marcus Doshi; sound by Tom Morse. At the Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street, through November 1st. Tickets $20 to $55, 212.353.0303, or www.vineyardtheatre.org