Passing Strange

((Spoilers Throughout))

(I mean, I can’t do this without spoilers, and plus none of you are gonna see this show, right? It’s like, probably sixth on everyone’s list, or… If it’s even *third* on your list, do you know how much *MONEY* you need to get all the way to your third choice? What do you care if I spoil the show, right?)

I covered some of this earlier, but I want to have a full review, all in one place. So, here goes…

When the show starts, you’re looking at an empty stage with four sections for musicians. Downstage there is a keyboard and a guitar stand, stage left is the same thing, stage right is a bass and a music stand, and far upstage there’s a drum-kit. The program congratulated us for choosing this show, as it had, according to best estimates, the hardest rockingness on Broadway.

Sure enough, the band came on stage and waived to us, along with Stew, and we greeted them warmly. Stew asked us how our Wednesday was, mentioned that “everyone has their own idea of what Wednesday means”, asked the drummer what time it was and said, “let’s start the show…” and kicked into the opening song called, I think, “We Might Play All Night”.

I didn’t know anything about the play going in, except that the bitches on All That Chat has said the show would have to go dark if Stew took a night off, so when he said he was the narrator and five other actors came on stage, I figured this was gonna be super fun. And it was, the opening number was a sort of Bar Wank tune, and the first real chunk of music took place in a black church, with an exactly appropriate black church number that blew the lid off the place, complete with one of the actors slapping a backbeat on a tambourine. The music stayed that way, it really did, for the most part, rock.

The story follows a young boy growing up in relative affluence in a corner of South Central. Weirdly, it was very much like the neighborhood I lived in, El Monte, where it was close to the rough neighborhood but wasn’t, itself, all that rough. And though the characters were all black, they were all affluent Los Angeles blacks, and the point is driven home throughout the play.

The title relates directly to this experience. The idea of “passing” in American black culture is a pretty divisive one, where blacks who can play in the white world will accuse one another of not being black *enough*. And, at one point late in the play, Stew accuses the boy of having no idea of what it’s like to grow up on the mean streets of South Central, and then looks at the actors and says, “Nobody on this *stage* know what it’s like to grow up on the mean streets of South Central”, much to the enjoyment of the 900 largely white New York Broadway audience members.

But before I get into too much deconstruction, let me just detail the plot. The youth, referred to often by Stew as a “pilgrim” thinks he has found God in music, and his mother slaps him for blaspheming. He joins the choir to get the attentions of a hot girl who wants him to go to Howard, get a Job, but also to blacken up a little. “Not so much that you’re unemployable, of course…”. He befriends the closeted Son of the Preacher, who regales him with stories of Europe.

The youth starts a punk band in his garage, which his mom thinks is adorable, he drops acid with his friends and discusses philosophy… all of the typical teenage rebellion stuff, until he realizes that nothing is gonna happen unless he leaves LA. He moves to Amsterdam, where his mind is blown by the kindness and artistic freedom available in Europe, and he joins a squatter commune where free-love and free-expression runs hot out of every tap.

He starts to feel like he won’t be able to find his true artistic calling in the paradise of Amsterdam, so he moves to Berlin, where his life is thrown into utter chaos, bombs and rebellion dripping all around him, and he joins a different sort of commune, full of anarchists and nihilists. When he is called out for his soft pop-music art, he suddenly takes on the persona of the angry black American, persecuted by his former country (leading to the mockery from the narrator from above…) His mother has been trying to get him to come home ever since he left, and we are privy to one last call from her, almost begging him to return for Christmas. Naturally, she’s dying, and he doesn’t make it home in time.

Now, there are another, maybe, eight minutes to the play, but I can’t even *explain* what happens without talking about what was good, and what didn’t work.

I’m embarrassed to admit, it took me about 20 or 30 minutes in to the play to realize that the youth and Stew were wearing the same color shirt and the same shoes. In my defense, everyone was wearing black, basically, so the red t-shirt and Chuck Taylors weren’t all that obvious, but it becomes clear right away that the narrator is actually the older version of the youth, telling his story.

And, though it is a musical in the old sense (people do break into song and sing to one another) there is also music in the way that, say, “Once” is a musical. Many of the performances in the show are also performances *in* the show. The youth starts a punk band, and they actually do one of their songs, one of the highlights of the
evening was a piece of performance art where a guy bound himself with a mic-cable and chanted “What’s inside is just a lie/ What’s inside is just a lie” over and over again.

But each of these is presented to us with utter mockery. A punk band? Right. Like this kid, in his two bedroom spacious house has anything real to be pissed about. The girl in Amsterdam is terrified that she is disturbing “the writing process” which gets a big laugh out of the audience. Even the youth’s performance piece about being black in
America is shown to us as an overture in self-indulgent delusion. The narrator spends the show telling us this story about ridiculous, embarrassing, wasted youth, about his own path of dishonest self-destruction, even as he pursues what he calls “the real”.

Now my problem with this is two fold, and I’m not sure which bothers me more. First of all, fuck you, Narrator. Now that you’re all grown up, you can look back on those moments of white-hot inspiration, the kind of creativity that we have as artists the occurs only *before* we begin to be consumed with self-doubt and culturally-acceptable
editing. You’re embarrassed that you were in a punk band, you *regret* moving to Amsterdam in 1982? ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Can I just say, as someone who didn’t get to go to Amsterdam in 1982, that you suck for mocking it. You became a performer because you found a voice as an angry black man, (even though you don’t really *deserve* to be an
angry black man because you grew up on Crenshaw *north* of the 10 instead of *south*) and you *deride* that?

The second part of that is… Stew wrote the show. It’s not just that the character of the Narrator is mocking his younger self, it’s that this is *Stew* mocking young Stew. And so… I mean, we’re watching him accuse himself of missing his mother’s death because of his pursuit of an artist’s life and it isn’t *storytelling*, it’s *RIGHT
THERE*. We aren’t talking about a construct, we’re not talking about the investigation of an idea. The guy? THAT’S HIM. THAT’S THE GUY.

So, when Stew turns to the audience and says, “Do you ever step back and realize that the grown up you are… is based on the decisions of an 18 year old kid… and 18 year old kid who is high?” and yeah, that’s a great line, it really is. But… You’re right there, dude. You’re the guy that you’re talking about, and you’re standing in the middle of a Broadway stage telling this story so… yeah, you’re life is *affected* by that kid’s decisions, but *obviously* you did, y’know, A COUPLE OF OTHER THINGS TOO, because you’re standing in the middle of the stage in front of us.

This is probably a lot more palatable to people who watch a lot
of reality TV, but for me, it really takes me out of the show. I have a circuit breaker that goes off in my heart, I can’t help it. At the end of the show, Dan said, “it’s a shame there’s nothing in this play for you to relate to…” and it was only then that I realized, a guy grows up in LA, has complicated family-issues, is fighting between being a good person to his loved ones and an artist, lives with massive regret… but during the show, I never got hooked in. And y’all know me, I cry at cooking shows and I always think everything is about me.

So, the end of the play, the actress who plays the mother comes back on stage, dressed in an outrageous and gorgeous dress, and the youth turns it around on the narrator, becoming the one who tells the story. And the mother tells Stew that it’s all right, that it’s all gonna be all right. It’s a beautiful moment in theory and in practice, but because of my own misgivings, I just wasn’t all the way on board.

The band was amazing, and many of the songs were excellent, but I had a little problem there as well. Rock songs are not musical theater songs, and it doesn’t work the other way either. When you are singing a rock song, you are providing a narrative, but the song itself doesn’t have to be a part of moving that narrative forward. Think “Glory Days” by Bruce Springsteen. The song tells a really pithy story, with a nice reversal at the end even, but you also get a whole lot of “bring it on home! YEAH Heh!” and everyone just keeps air-guitaring and drinking beer or whatever one does to Bruce

But in a musical, even when you are Beer Hall Rock-ing, you have to keep moving the story. You can get away with a refrain that has some repeating in it (“Six inches forward, five inches back” from Hedwig, for example) but if you’re gonna try it, you better have the story blowing people’s minds at the same time (a botched sex change takes a while for an audience to digest, to complete the above example).

In Passing Strange, the youth goes to Amsterdam, wanders into a hash bar, gets high, starts talking to some people, and a beautiful woman asks him to move in to her apartment and hands him her keys. It’s a shocking moment, and a gorgeous moment… he even looks back on the fact that in America, if he walks down the street, most women lock their car doors, and here a woman he’s known for an hour just gives him the keys to her home. It’s an astonishing moment.

But the song, which, if it’s not called “Her Keys” it should be, is several minutes long. Yes, it’s an amazing thing, but… you just can’t do that. You can in pop music, you can start a song by just singing “You’re Beautiful” 27 times in a row, but in the theater, the action moves forward. When the song ended, I shifted uncomfortably, but when they reprised it twenty minutes later into the show, I was shocked.

It’s a small quibble, but it grinds my gears a little bit. Also, yes… it would be impossible to do the show without Stew. It wouldn’t make sense to have a guy up there who *didn’t* write the show. It’s a conceit of the show, the narrator wrote it. I don’t know how they finish the play without him.

All that being said, the set, which was just rows of florescent lights on the back wall and a couple of chairs, was perfect and chilling and hilarious. It was exactly right, and I *really* wish the Universal Robots people had seen it because it would be a great inspiration for that show. And the cast… Oh, good lord. This was the best looking group of people I’ve ever seen in a play.

The women in this play personify beauty. Unless you were blinded by a sort of backwater 1920s Arkansas racism, I think at least one of the three women in this play would personify beauty for you. And all of them did for me, in their own way. Not hot, not overtly sexy, nothing like that… just actual *beauty* oozing off the stage.

All in all, it was fantastic to get out and see the show, and I really enjoyed being in the theater and bouncing along with the music. In the time since seeing the show, it has, if you’ll pardon the expression, grown *off* me in a lot of ways, but I still really, really enjoyed it.