Passing Strange

[28 January 2010]

By Terrence Butcher

A Negro's Problem

I’m a bit of a theater snob, truth be told. Oh, I don’t mean that I’m infatuated with avant-garde or experimental pieces. Nor, for that matter, do I feel seduced by haughty Shakespeare revivals. In fact, Middle English narcotizes me.

No, what I’m referring to is my preference for small-scale drama in a stage environment. Spectacle is best left, I feel, to the silver screen, where a good director can plumb his or her bag of tricks and dazzle viewers with innovative angles, or glide through an entire neighborhood with ease, as Wise and Robbins did with the landmark West Side Story. And let’s face it, if you’re relegated to the back row, are you really having the same experience as the lucky patron who can breathe onto the stage? Hardly.

As I watched Spike Lee’s – and it’s not really his – Passing Strange, I slowly began to modify this narrow purview. I hadn’t realized that it wasn’t an adaptation of Stew’s musical showpiece, but rather, a videotaped record of the play, with no changes wrought by Spike. If you weren’t fortunate enough to catch this towering achievement on Broadway or in its Berkeley premiere run, then you may be astonished by its no holding back inventiveness. With numerous close-ups and side angle shots, Lee has succeeded in making the play an intimate experience for anyone watching from the comfort of their Barcalounger.

And spectacle? Stew, nee Mark Stewart( w/ collaborator Heidi Rodewald), creates an amazing sonic collage of spoken word angst, emotional tunes, and wicked musical flourishes in telling his semi-autobiographical tale of a South L.A. teen who flees to Europe in the late ‘70s to find himself. Not the first to attempt this, of course, but Stew effortlessly unfurls his personal stamp in universal longing.

For the uninitiated, Stew is the driving force behind the now-disbanded Los Angeles trio The Negro Problem, whose infectious, snarky songs drew on seemingly disparate genres like alternative rock, soul, show tunes, and whatever else crossed mark Stewart’s consciousness. The group never had much chart action – it’s unlikely you’d have heard them anywhere else but NPR—but they were critical darlings in the ‘90s, and any L.A hipster-cum-music geek of that era – especially the sort you might read about on Stuff White People Like – was happy to declare themselves a TNP aficionado.

Passing Strange, developed largely through the Sundance Institute, tells the story of the unnamed Youth, a black teenager anxious to escape the stultifying churchiness of his mother’s household and fulfill dreams he feels are incompatible with his environment. Daniel Breaker plays Youth, and we sense his nerdiness, his desire to find kindred souls, his fear of becoming a practical person leading a drab, practical existence, as he imagines of his mother.

In a hilarious scene, Youth encounters an aggressive young woman called Brown Sugar, who desires him, but desires to change him even more. She informs the hapless Youth that he will graduate from a prestigious historically-black college, buy her a beautiful home filled with African objets d’art , and, oddly, also “blacken” himself up, as he seems too whitebread to suit her paradoxical fantasia of Afrocentric buppiedom.  She’s clearly barkin’ up the wrong man, as Youth will have none of it, and soon heads to Europe.

In this respect, Youth follows a trajectory blazed by artistic forebears like James Baldwin, Josephine Baker, and more jazzmen than anyone could name. In their heyday, Europe represented a land of milk and honey, where one could cast off the stubborn racial baggage placed on one’s shoulders in the good ol’ USA, and blend into society, with a touch of exoticism opening doors of opportunity. It’s a bit ironic that Youth is excoriated by friends and family for seeking his niche when that very same impulse arguably created both the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s, of which Youth is so obviously a product of.

Not surprisingly, Youth lets loose his reins amidst the cavalier debauchery of Amsterdam, his first stop on the Continent, though he eventually makes his way to a free squat in Berlin, spending much of his time milking his Afro-American blackness for all it’s worth. He encounters unthinking casual racial ignorance, not to mention Christmas-worshipping Marxist revolutionaries and a lovely African girl, Desi, who reminds him that the struggle for gender equality in her homeland mirrors that of American blacks’ push for full citizenship during Youth’s childhood.

I couldn’t help thinking that the portly Stew, born a generation earlier, might have been an essential contributor to ABC’s Schoolhouse Rock. His clever, verbose story-songs seem tailor-made for that underrated program, which my generation hungrily digested with our Saturday morning cereal. His speaking voice is eerily redolent of the noted theologian Peter Gomes, albeit a bit less fey, but he can cut loose like nobody’s business; at the tail end of “Amsterdam”, he morphs into an R&B belter, and any A & R man from Stax Records would have been proud to sign him. The raucous rocker “May Day” is also a highlight, as well as some wall-of-sound six-string dissonance in “Merci Beaucoup”.

Passing Strange also raises the specter of closetedness and denial amongst African-American homosexual men, in the persona of Mr. Franklin, played feverishly by Colman Domingo, a classic church queen who has chosen to sublimate his desire to be fabulous by wringing powerful music out of the choir, shrugging off the bitter irony of tethering himself to an institution which has little use for his orientation, but will use his vibrancy, his command of the sacred and the profane, to keep his kind behind locked doors.

Domingo also shines in a separate role, as the horrifying Mr. Venus, spitting out the words to “Surface” in a scratchy, gravelly tone, his face partially obscured by disfiguring makeup. I may be reading too much into this, but is Venus’ frightening visage a possible metaphor for the havoc that AIDS would wreak on black gay men?

Love or hate him, no other director working in mainstream cinema has questioned and challenged notions of African-American identity as thoroughly as Spike Lee. Stating that Passing Strange isn’t truly his movie is not in any way a diss, merely an acknowledgment that Spike recognized the genius inherent in the production, and sought only to document this, to stay out of the way, so to speak. Not everyone can afford a choice seat at the Belasco Theater, nor is everyone particularly interested in stage drama, and Lee reportedly wanted the show immortalized on videotape, for all to see.

Extras abound on the DVD, the most informative being an interview with Stew and Heidi in which Stew prays that “Passing” won’t be “the artistic peak of my life”, and admits that he had “a goal to end up in a Spike Lee film”. We also get a gossipy tour of New York’s famed Belasco, and backstage doings during the final performance.

Passing Strange is an inspirational rock opera that provokes thought as well as toe-tapping, or air guitar-strumming, as it were. A melding of serious drama, sarcastic humor, and brash power pop attitude, it marks a watershed moment in the life of a musical adventurer who has yet to bask in the spotlight. Let’s hope that Passing Strange is merely a preview of brilliance to come.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/118861-passing-strange/