“You know it’s weird when you wake up that morning and realize that your entire adult life was based on the decision of a teenager. A stoned teenager. I know there must be some investment bankers out there who know the feeling.” –Stew, Passing Strange
The electricity in the air at the Belasco emanates from more than the crackling guitars of Christian Gibbs and Jon Spurney (and the rest of the talented band). Take a good look around at the audience — it’s got the largest percentage of people-too-young-to-worry-about-an-IRA on the Rialto. Whatever your age, you can’t deny the palpable surge in energy when this demographic fills the house. They’re there because the show pounds out questions central to the adolescent psyche. If you’re adolescent at heart (and who isn’t), you’ll relate.
Stew (the one-named writer-composer of the whole thing) plays narrator/puppet-master in this fictionalized autobiography. Youth, a middle-class African-American kid from Southern California (Daniel Breaker), seeks his own identity. Stew’s interplay with him has a poignant Scrooge-with-Christmas-Past irony that infuses the show with wry and sometimes melancholy humor. A spirituality-seeking14-year-old, he reluctantly goes to church with his mom — powerfully played by Eisa Davis. There, Youth has a revelation — about the divinity in music.
He forms a punk band called The Scaryotypes and sings: “I’m at war with Negro mores. I’m at war with ghetto norms./My mother stands in doorways beggin’ me to conform.” Actually, Mom comes in to offer the band cookies. Long before Youth does, we see that the “realness” he’s searching for is right there in his family.
Youth’s adventures over the rainbow — beyond the Atlantic — to seek the real, send up European stereotypes. He encounters something like love in Amsterdam, but soon that “paradise” becomes a bore and he finds he has nothing to write about. So he leaves the girl, who, ironically, sings wistfully “right when it was beginning to feel real.”
In Berlin, he falls in with Desi (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and the “Nowhausers.” Impressed with the way these Germans build the real instead of looking for it — a hysterical performance piece by Mr. Venus (Colman Domingo) includes the refrain “what’s inside is just a lie” — Youth begins to feel real. The audience shouts it too. It’s silly and exciting, like the whole show. Desi warns him “Only love is real,” but when his unrevolutionary pop songs are about to get him kicked out, he panics. And he begins “passing” for ghetto black. He says, “Well, let me ask you this, Mr. Know-It-All, do you know what it’s like to hustle for dimes on the mean streets of South Central?” Stew turns to the audience:
“Uh, nobody in this play knows what it’s like to hustle for dimes on the mean streets of South Central.”
The fresh, accurate comment brings down the house. Turns out the politics of identity (not quite the same as identity politics) are great fodder for rock and roll. Onstage, rock musicals often limit identity to what used to be called “the generation gap” (in Hair or Spring Awakening) or sometimes “the gender gap” (Hedwig and the Angry Inch). One thing setting Passing Strange apart is that its vision is much more expansive — like that of the music itself.
Where the play goes next is unexpected and moving. All along, Youth’s mother has been calling him home, but Youth “lost track of her pain.” The catharsis building as Stew tells Youth that “your epiphanies will become fickle friends” is too quickly undercut by unearned forgiveness and a redemptive song. The speed of this turnaround keeps the play from real greatness, but with a mean band, wonderful cast, real rock songs and a fresh story, Passing Strange is no passing fancy.