A young, African American man with a gift for music sets out to find “the real” (code for authentic) in the midst of a world fraught with hypocrisy, political posturing and pleasure-driven distractions. Something of a mashup by way of Company, Pippin and maybe a dash of The Wizard of Oz, our hero, listed in the program as “Youth” begins his journey in the church choir, where a friend confides they belong to a church where black people only pass as black. Suggesting perhaps they lack the rage appropriate to oppression? The discrepancy between what it means to be and act black (in 1980’s America) is a subject explored often in Passing Strange, a rock and roll musical written by Heidi Rodewald and Stew. Whether or not this question is answered, it’s a compelling show, filled with intense frustration and sorrow, anger and regret.
Our young protagonist travels to Amsterdam, believing the gravitas of Europe will help earn his chops as an artist. He falls in with a group of kindred spirits, quickly discovering that casual sex and recreational drugs are readily available. Finally deciding bliss makes no motivation for creativity, he moves on, leaving girlfriend Marianna, and the tribe behind. Next he travels to West Berlin, where art is driven by class struggle and a profound distrust of middle class values. He embraces Desi, an articulate and tumultuous activist, who pushes him to examine his identity as an expatriated African American, living in postwar Germany. As he considers various philosophies and metaphysical positions, he grows further and further apart from his mother. Bourgeois though she may be, she truly cares for him, and even when the other members of his group travel home for Christmas, he doesn’t understand he’s taking a very precious love for granted. “They make me crazy”, one of them explains, “but they’re my family.”
Our hero, it seems, hasn’t lived long enough to grasp that genuine love, whatever the source, is rare in this rough, cold, desolate world of ours. He comes by it so easily, he doesn’t realize it’s not an endless resource he can neglect. Passing Strange submerges us in this funny, painful, cyclonic fable, with oceans of versatile, soulful, often introspective and fierce music. There’s so much thrashing about I’m not sure what it amounts to, in retrospect. Does it come to more than the sum of its parts? That being said, it’s a pleasurable, sweet, profoundly moving experience.
Theatre Three presents Passing Strange, playing March 2nd-26th, 2017. Regional Premiere. Book and Lyrics by Stew. Music by Heidi Rodewald and Stew. 2800 Routh Street, Suite 168, Dallas, Texas 75201. 214-871-3300. theatre3dallas.com