Bold as Love | 2007.may.11
...So you could easily make the case that Black rock is going beyond music and is picking up momentum as it moves across the cultural landscape. The latest example is the musical Passing Strange, which is running now through June 3 at the Public Theater in NYC. As Brooklyn Vegan rightly notes, it's "a theatre show that felt as much as a soul/rock concert as it felt like a play."
Passing Strange is a coming of age story based on the life of the musician Stew who, as a teenager, decided to take off for Europe to be free of the constraints of American society. We never see this kind of story told about African Americans! Rock and the blues call out to this meditating, Eastern philosophy-spouting youth. In 1970s Los Angeles, this puts him seemingly at odds with his no-nonsense mother and her conservative, holier-than-thou fellow churchgoers. Thanks to the encouragement from his church’s choir director during a marijuana-fueled rap session "Slaves got options: Escape. Revolt. Death. Cowards only have consequences." he heads first to Amsterdam and then to Berlin to find a space in which to construct an identity free from the limits of race (or so he thinks), but finds himself still forced to navigate between the often-contradictory influences around him. More importantly, he’s forced to come to terms with the choices, good and bad, that he’s made.
Along the way, the younger Stew (played by Daniel Breaker, who bears a strong resemblance to Dule Hill of Psych fame) encounters, drugs, hash, sex and self-delusion during his travels. What’s fascinating is the opportunity to watch this story unfold amid powerful music and song and strong acting by a cast that also includes Eisa Davis, De’Adre Aziza, Chad Goodridge and Rebecca Jones. It’s particularly interesting to watch the all-black cast's spot-on portrayals often sendups of Dutch and German characters. The production is staged in a way that puts the four members of Stew’s band onstage and part of the action as it unfolds. The actors interact with them liberally, even using their movable platforms and pits as props.
The musical doesn’t wrap up neatly, but this is the messiness of life. I’m not familiar with Stew’s band, the pop rock combo The Negro Problem. But this musical is certainly an indication of enormous talent and mastery of songwriting. In concert with what will appear to be an unfamiliar “Black experience” to some, the 20+ songs that cover a variety of styles and genres make this production an exhilarating and enjoyable experience. It’s time well-spent.
Passing Strange underscores that there are other ways that African Americans can be in the world. It’s the point the invitation of Black rock that you can create a rich existence outside the narrow American box of Black authenticity.
Please support this musical.