Review of Passing Strange at Playhouse on Park
Playhouse on Park’s production of Passing Strange, by musical and performance artist Stew, directed by Sean Harris, makes full use of the theater’s intimate thrust stage, as the cast move all through the space, accompanied by a four-piece band led by a dynamic narrator/singer/master of ceremonies, Darryl Jovan Williams. With “Narrator” as our guide, we follow the story of “the Youth” (Eric R. Williams), a young black man from a middle-class suburb of L.A., coming of age in the late Seventies, much like Stew himself. Everyone seems to be having a wonderful time telling this story and the ensemble’s joy—in the music, in movement, in singing, and in acting a variety of characters—will put a smile on your face.
One of the more refreshing aspects of the Youth’s story is his self-conscious realization that, in cultural terms, he’s “passing for black.” Sure, he’s black to the white folks he hangs out with—in his hometown, and then in Amsterdam and then in Berlin—but he knows that trying to be “ghetto” so as to gain street cred among the radical “nowhaus” group he hangs with in Germany is a bit absurd, and finally a woman (Karissa Harris) he’s trying to woo calls him on it. The Youth is not quite a playa—only because he was too well brought up by his well-meaning mother (Famecia Ward)—but he’s not above trading on stereotypical notions when it serves his purpose, and some of the best humor of the show comes from our awareness of his awareness of how jive he allows himself to be, at times. A real strength of this production is that Eric R. Williams plays Youth’s self-conscious cool so well; Williams gives the part a likable earnestness that should have wide appeal—to any current or former youths bent on self-discovery, or, as he puts it, “finding the real.”
Stew’s story gets right certain very real elements of Seventies life. First, there’s the widespread social acceptance of drugs: the Youth gets turned on to grass by the closeted gay leader of the church choir (Garrett Turner has fun with the more flamboyant roles in the show), then later has an anxiety-provoking acid trip. Then there’s the fact that many of the victories of the civil rights era seem like second nature. The Youth is already bored about having to genuflect to black cultural leaders—his first act of rebellion, after dropping out of the choir (which he joined because gospel music seemed to him like rock), is to form a punk band that sounds pretty authentic indeed. Elsewhere there’s fun with European art-house cinema, but one suspects that neither cast nor director has spent a lot of time with the genre since that segment feels more like Hollywood melodrama than Godard-inflected disaffect.
Watching the very busy and energetic ensemble transform before our eyes from L.A. kids to hip Dutch to molotov-cocktail-hurling German radicals is one of the delights of the show. There’s also a captivating lyrical moment when the lovely Marianna (Skyler Volpe), an Amsterdam squatter, makes a gift to our vagabond hero of the keys to her flat. Stew and his musical collaborator Heidi Rodewald know how to bring out the lyricism of fleeting romance and Williams and Volpe, et al., do the song full justice. Later, the irony that Berlin radicals, bent upon remaking society, go home for the holidays leaves Youth high and dry, since he’s trying hard to avoid returning to a mother who can’t understand his flight to freedom.
Though he leaves her behind and has to insist, to her importuning phone call before Christmas, that his home is Berlin, not L.A., the bond between mother and son accounts for the emotional uplift the show ends on, though it’s not quite enough. All along we’ve been enjoying the candid depiction of a self-centered, self-serving “talent” who manipulates situations to his ends. In realizing his younger self has been unfairly neglectful of his mother, the Narrator, as Youth grown-up, or Stew, offers Passing Strange as a kind of confession for the sake of atonement. How moving that effort is depends on how much we want our hero to learn a lesson about family ties.
As the story is not big on surprises—its main tensions are of the “I gotta be me” variety typical of stories of artists in popular genres—the change of gear near the close amounts to growth and moral improvement. Soulful enough in the more emotional tunes, like “Work the Wound,” the production really cooks when the cast and band are making the most of the full-throttle raves. While a heartfelt comeuppance to the callowness of Youth—and youth—is inspiring enough, the real passion of the show is in the celebration of music as a form of art that can make up for failures in life. It’s “passing strange”—in a phrase Stew borrows from Othello—how Youth passes through cultural identities and from youth to maturity, but the pay-off is in how well his work lives up to that journey. Passing Strange does—and so does Playhouse on Park’s production.
Book and lyrics by Stew
Music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald
Created in collaboration with Annie Dorsen
Directed by Sean Harris
Choreography by Darlene Zoller
Cast: Karissa Harris; Garrett Turner; Skyler Volpe; J’Royce; Famecia Ward; Darryl Jovan Williams; Eric R. Williams
Playhouse on Park
December 2-20, 2015