Welcome to The Real: From Amsterdam to Berlin, The Public Theatre’s ‘Passing Strange’ Breaks Stereotypes and Crosses Boundaries

So, like three weeks later, here’s my review.

Oh. My. God.

I know — not very articulate of me in what is supposed to be a review, but suffice it to say that these are the only words that could describe my immediate reaction upon leaving the Belasco Theatre late Saturday night (5/31/08).

Before I get into things, however, I want to make a general “spoiler” warning here in lieu of a disclaimer. I am giving a very in-depth commentary, which includes a detailed synopsis, so if you are the type of person who does not like to know what happens beforehand, I suggest you ignore this post and scroll down to the Sex and the City trailer instead. Also, parenthetical references to songs are not necessarily in order — in fact, I may mention certain things out of order, so forgive me in advance if I’m a little less than lucid.

Ahem. With that said, I think I shall start here...

Passing Strange is the newest offering in the latest slew of so-called “rock musicals” to make it to the Great White Way. Co-created and narrated by Stew (of L.A.-based pop/rock duo The Negro Problem), this piece deals with themes of identity, love and what it means to be young. Its quizzical title comes from a quote in Shakespeare’s Othello, and as Stew explains in the Playbill: “[It] applies in the context of people ‘passing’ for what they are not — culturally, psychologically, and so on.”

This theme is carried out most prominently — and in such a moving way, might I add — by the character simply called The Youth, played by Daniel Breaker. Living in the predominantly black neighborhood of South Central, The Youth struggles with identity issues within the confines of his surrounding church community and family (especially that of his own mother), constantly refusing their urges for him to be more “black” (“Baptist Fashion Show”/”Mom Song”). This tug-of-war between who he feels he is and who he is expected to be in society leads him to go off on a soul-searching quest to Europe for what the local Reverend’s son terms as “The Real” (“Arlington Hill”).

First off, I want to just give my overall thoughts of Stew and his performance here, as well as that of the band’s (which includes co-creator Heidi Rodewald and her Shawn Colvin-like voice), before we get into the bulk of the story. Stew, the narrator and “emcee” of sorts, is just pure rock ‘n’ roll through and through, as he and the band start off our story (Prologue/ “We Might Play All Night”). At once a soulful gospel preacher, spoken-word poet and charismatic lead singer that could give Mick Jagger a run for his money, Stew wisely oversees The Youth’s journey and takes us along for a wild ride.

And what a wild ride, indeed.

The story then unfolds on the streets of Amsterdam, where our Youth travels to find The Real. As The Youth walks into an artsy cafe, our eyes are gloriously blinded by a set of neon lights revealed on the back wall of the stage, conveying what I took to be signs of the city’s infamous Red Light District (“Amsterdam”). here, he meets a “neo-hippie” (as described in the Playbill) named Marianna, played by de’Adre Aziza, who notably looks past his skin color and offers him a place to stay (“Keys”).

Amidst freewheeling artists and moonlighters, The Youth finds himself swirled in a frenzy of mood-altering highs and steamy menages a trois — and then some. And whilst The Youth’s current surroundings are definitely sensual, it is at this stage that the story starts to take up much more humor as the comapny starts off the number, “We Just had Sex”, poking fun at that post-coital glow one may have after having multi-partnered relations.

Meanwhile, despite the heavenly bliss of legalized weed and sexual romps galore, our Youth discovers that one cannot write angsty, gut-wrenching rock songs whilst living in Paradise. So, “just when it was starting to feel real,” he takes off to new heights and settles in Berlin. It is there he meets a group of angry May ’68-ers (“May Day”), who are led by den mother Desi. Played to such strength and depth by Rebecca Naomi Jones, Desi’s seemingly tough exterior soon chips away as she and our hero fall in love (“Damage”). here, the humor continues on, as we meet Mr. Venus, an edgy performance artist, played to comedic perfection by Colman Domingo (who also played the Reverend’s son, Franklin). Also peppering snide yet witty comments throughout the Berlin section of play is Aziza as Sudabey, a rough-and-tumble avant-garde filmmaker, cracking some of the funniest one-liners of the night.

Aside from the injected humors, we also start to see the growing development of The Youth inner conflict, as he begins his new identity as a performance artist. Initially, disapproved of by the band of militant misfits, our hero tries to play up the non-existent “gangsta” life he claims to have led (“The Black One”). This thuggish facade fascinates the Berliners, who immediately welcome him with open arms — well, all except Desi, who suspects that our hero isn’t what he claims to be. She confronts him, but not long before he receives a phone call from his mother, who wants him to come home. We realize that The Youth still has much to learn in the way of love, especially in the way of a mother’s unconditional, unwavering emotion for her child. His turmoil soon climaxes as he tries to work out all that is going on between his love for Desi, as well as that for his mother back in L.A.

Soon, our Youth finds himself flying back to L.A. for his mother’s funeral, and finally comes to terms with the fact tht no matter what his identity — whether it be artist extraordinaire or wailing troubadour, his mother would have still loved him all the same (“Work the Wound”/ “Passing Phase”). In the realization of this, we as the audience realize that the Youth’s whole story had been somewhat of an autobiography, as we see Stew face our hero and look at his past self. He tells the Youth all that he’s learnt, that however much he’s tried, his mother would never come back. Our hero insists otherwise, stating that it is in the continuation of his art, through which he shall funnel all the love and regret he’s had for both his mother’s death, and its aftermath.

It is here that one of my favorite quotes from the show is uttered, by Breaker’s character: “Life is a mistake only art can correct.” So much is said by these few words, and the fact that they were voiced through The Youth speaks volumes about the general hopefulness one possesses when they’re young. In many ways, it’s what this show is all about, that in your twenties life can be full of possibilities only when you choose to go out and explore them.

While this sentiment definitely resonated with me, it was the narrator’s woeful doubts that I believe touched me the most. Stew’s performance played out in such a way that saddened me, as if to him it was impossible to believe in The Real anymore. Indeed, as he and co-collaborator start off “Love Like That”, he makes it clear that The Real “is a construct,” and that the only place people can ever really experience The Real is through art.

They say that “Life imitates art,” and it is clear in Stew’s storytelling. The libretto is such a unique piece, fresh and vibrant, with themes that leave you with something more than what you expected when you entered the theatre. With a well-rounded cast — which also includes Eisa Davis as The Youth’s mother, and Chad Goodridge — breathing life to multiple roles, and a heart-pounding, trippy score just as psychedelic as The Youth’s journey, Passing Strange is definitely a show that has staying power in the current, ever-changing climate of Broadway musicals.

Images courtesy of Passing Strange ran from February 28-July 20, 2008 at the Belasco Theatre (111 West 44th Street).


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