By Jordan Wright
“The Soul Collector” brings us into the Cleveland, Ohio junk-strewn home of two black men, Darnell and his uncle Cedric, struggling under the burden of emotional scars and doomed dreams until a supernatural intervention unites them in common cause.
It’s 1972 and the men are city sanitation workers. Cedric (DeJeanette Horne) has raised the boy since his parents died in a traffic accident. We are greeted by a set filled with nostalgia of the day — old skis, a Snoopy phone, a sled, mementoes of everyday life and shelves of figurines — the sort ladies kept on fireplace mantels.
Darnell (Chaz D. Pando) is an untalented but doggedly aspiring Motown songwriter whose passion for music is turning Christmas carols into love songs while plunking out the melodies on a tiny child’s piano. He is locked in a time warp since the fateful Christmas Eve he lost his parents.
Cedric has a different plan for them. He hopes Darnell will be his partner in a chicken wing restaurant.
“This is a calling,” he insists trying to convince his nephew.
“Maybe it’s the wrong number,” snaps Darnell, urging his uncle to forget about waitresses sporting huge chicken wings.
Their neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Coleman (played by Donnell S. Boykin and Kecia A. Campbell respectively), serve as their landlords as well as their close friends, visiting the apartment and delivering some of the funniest lines of the show while stopping by to chat.
Despite their differing ambitions, Darnell and Cedric find themselves united in a mutual quest when a shape-shifting spirit pops out of a box and into their lives. They agree to work together to help her back to life.
Claire (played by Lolita-Marie) is the lost soul, cursed by two spirits with unrequited deaths — a man who’s a washed-up Jewish talent agent and a Japanese girl killed in Nagasaki during World War II. Darnell and Cedric decide to care for her by confronting their fears, speaking truth to their lives and letting go of past wrongs.
When Wisher (Cristopher Dinwiddie) appears in the guise of a morlock, he threatens to co-opt their lives and wreak vengeance on their souls. It is then they must band together and rise up in each other’s defense. Dinwiddie is brilliant, plumbing the depths of evil personified.
In telling their tale, Washington playwright and actor David Emerson Toney has written a haunting yet redemptive story in comic drama. He uses a mash up of familiar themes from “The Jeffersons,” “In Living Color” (where Toney was a staff writer in the ‘90’s) and “Sanford and Sons” as a stepping off point.
He has kept the feistiness and the ethnic humor we remember from those shows’ beloved characters, but in this play our protagonists have more developed personalities and the plot has deeper import. We cannot treat them as one-dimensional comedic figures, but are compelled to climb into their skins and explore their souls.
Director Deirdre Starnes has assembled a wondrous cast, one without weak links. And kudos to set designer/master carpenter/co-lighting designer Frank Pasqualino, who has his masterful fingerprints all over this dramatic production. It’s a perfect piece for Port City Playhouse — deeply affecting coupled with powerful acting. I would see it again for the crack performances if only I could steel my mind against its haunting imagery.
At The Lab at Convergence, 1819 North Quaker Lane, Alexandria, VA 22302. Performances continue on these dates – November 16, 17 at 8pm and November 17 at 2 p.m. for matinees. For tickets and information call 703 838-2880 or email PortCityInfo.com for reservations or visit www.portcityplayhouse.org.