Inner Continental | 2007.may.12
In his 2003 book Passing Gas, photographer Gary Gladstone drove over 38,000 miles in search of unique visual opportunities, pairing small-town residents that somehow represented the namesake of their zip code. So you have the beady-eyed state trooper in Surprise, New York; the bubbly Bible-hugging minister in Embarrass, Illinois; and the half-asleep senior couple in Dull, Ohio. And, of course, the jumbo breakfast-wielding waitress in Gas, Kansas, a yolky meal Gladstone must have passed on. Yet, no Strange.
Perhaps this region could only come from the head of Stew, the writer/narrator of Passing Strange at the Public Theater. The exact location of his characters is, while geographically specific (Los Angeles, Amsterdam and Berlin), everywhere. That was the point: Strange is a state of being and we all, in some way, embody it. And that’s the reason the packed theater didn’t stop laughing throughout the entire two-hour, forty-minute performance.
Perhaps this is why the central character is simply referred to as Youth (Daniel Breaker). Like Ellison’s unnamed hero in The Invisible Man, Youth plays a fantastic double-edge: he is the you inside of you, but also, like Ellison’s focal point, pivotal in introducing untold issues in black America. Invisibility too is a state of being, and in the end all Youth wanted was to be seen. The reality is he was never seeing himself, hence the root of his confusion.
Still, there’s more. In the opening scene we find Youth sleeping slack-jawed while his mother (Eisa Davis) bickers about him getting his life together (at fourteen years old), and going to church, a practice she herself has abandoned. Turns out Youth has been contemplating Zen Buddhism and, upon awakening, starts OM-ing as a rebuttal to Ma’s gripes. What sets him on his quest is an inquisitive gaze into Eastern philosophy, something not often seen in African-American culture.
In an interview I conducted with Zen Buddhist priestess Angel Kyodo Williams following the release of her book Being Black, she had thought deeply upon this very topic. “The book is for people of color,” she said, “but how do you limit something that’s really very human? There were so many times reviewers said ‘This is so much more than being black.’ In my own experiences, knowing the politics of access, a lot of black folks are not getting access to this kind of practice. For me that was a very strong component and something I wanted to direct my attention and say ‘This is your invitation.’”
Passing Strange is Stew’s invitation, and to much more than a yoga asana or koan. He explores several thorough and well-selected topics: hypocrisy in religion, film noir techniques, individual versus social liberation in a politically oppressed nation, ménage a trios and marijuana tons of marijuana. From Youth’s first joint hit with the pastor’s son, Mr. Franklin (Colman Domingo), overlooking the LA sunset, to his introduction to the touch of two females in Amsterdam, and an inevitable loss of love in Berlin, marijuana was there with him. Well, not so much in Germany, but the faux-Kraftwerk bit with a vocoder and tinny synth riffs had the place rolling.
Black identity lies at the core of Stew’s work. He leads a musical duo called the Negro Problem, and does an amazing job at working late 1970’s South Central idealism into a middle class black suburban quandary. This is pre-hip-hop, yet the idea of “keeping it real” pervades, especially in Youth’s declaration of being “hood” while actually growing up in a financially stable neighborhood. As the play continues, it grows from a tome on black America to something more universal in scope; it really is the search for identity-at-large, grown out of a bohemian mind in love with the unique angles and postures anyone can assume.
One can’t help but guess how large an influence Baldwin was on the play (considering how many times he’s in the narration), and more specifically, Another Country. The writer’s masterpiece on these exact issues (black America, personal identity) is what Passing Strange declares; Youth could have been Rufus, had the latter not jumped from the GW Bridge. The parallels seep through many pores: a talented musician frustrated with the genre boxing blacks are placed inside, seeking his own sense of self-worth in a society that doesn’t understand him. Granted, Youth does not beat any wives, but that’s also because Stew has created something more worthwhile in his masterwork: strong females (perhaps a little bit of Ida Scott?). Besides the physical beauty of De’Adre Aziza and Rebecca Naomi Jones, both played a diversity of roles with feline acrobatics and soothing, soulful voices. Indeed, as we will close with, the musical selections were excellent.
The hero journey of Youth would have made Joseph Campbell proud; Stew played the archetype to perfection. Unsatisfied youth in Los Angeles has his eyes opened to marijuana after a powerful preaching session (Chad Goodridge) ends with motherly oppression; he joins the youth choir to get laid, and it turns out the preacher’s son is a disgruntled pothead (not to take anything from any actor, but Domingo stole the show; his pantomimes and facial expressions, and amazing use of gravity and timing, proved astounding); he leaves LA for Amsterdam, which turns out to be Eden, which as what happens to all of us caught in too good of a situation sours; he moves on to Tier Six of the Inferno in Berlin. And then, after creating “performance art” by splicing a seven-hour tape of his girlfriend singing in the shower, he returns to sunny California when his mother passes, from sadness of a lost son.
And there’s the rub. In one particularly inspired (and inspiring) spoken word monologue, Youth breaks into a beatific Saul Williams cadence and declares he’s lost mother gravity and is now bound to earth. Beautiful. His rebellion against his mother is man’s distancing from nature, both of himself and the world around him. It’s a very common theme, and universal. We all know it, yet how we express it is what makes lasting art. There’s no doubt that Passing Strange, after this first run, will prove to be just that.
The play is a tour-de-force. As associate producer Bill Bragin told me before the show, “it’s epic.” He wasn’t kidding. The scene changes were rapid and fluid; the scenery and costumes tasteful, indulgent; and the music, well, that’s Stew’s strange terrain. He’s a dynamic performer and the score reflects such. Curtis Mayfield undertones appear in Berlin when Youth declares his “hoodiness.” Cinematic balladry comes alive in “Keys,” when Youth is invited into a bohemian Amsterdam flat. Little snippets of gospel and showtunes arise; blues and rock, Stew’s bread-and-butter, are sprinkled throughout. And damn it if I’ll never forget a mascara-laden limp-legged Domingo making his gut-wrenching manifesto on the German minimalist electronic tip. Peter Brook would be envious over what this Empty Space gave birth to.