A rock-and-rolling, Los Angeles-based black teenager with a penchant for Buddhism and disdain for his mother’s Baptist church heads to Europe to find what he calls “The Real,” an elusive notion of the authentic experience.
Such is the premise of Passing Strange, the Tony Award-winning 2008 Broadway musical that is now the subject of a Spike Lee film. Currently playing at the IFC Center in New York City and available on Demand, the show was written by singer and guitarist Stew, with music co-written by his partner, bassist and vocalist Heidi Rodewald.
The aforementioned teen, a character based somewhat on Stew’s experiences as an adolescent, meets a host of artists who help to shape his creativity while also forcing him to face his immaturity. All the while, tension floats between him and his upper-crust mother as she calls from the U.S.
Lee’s documentary is essentially a live rendering of the show, providing close-ups of performers engaged in electrified movement and vulnerability. The play transverses traditional ideas of what musicals should be, with the house band in the thick of the action playing songs that include pop-rock hybrids, ballads and avant-garde spoken word set to music.
And most of the all-black cast depicts both black and white characters, with roles ranging from snooty fashion-conscious churchgoers to drug-taking members of a punk band to the sensual patrons of an Amsterdam hashish café—a nudist, a lover of tantric meditation and a philosophy professor who’s also a sex worker.
This is all to say that the aesthetics of Passing Strange mirror its main story of a young man deciding that there’s more to life than staying within the confines of his middle-class ‘hood; both are about liberation and experimentation. The project’s sensibilities declare that there is a grand assortment of experiences for brown folks to have both inside and outside of America. The dictates placed upon blackness can be dismantled, tossed around and put back together in new, interesting and irreverently different ways.
Stew and Rodewald specialize in this. A night before Passing Strange’s film premiere, The Negro Problem, the show’s band, presented “The Broadway Problem” as part of New York’s Lincoln Center’s Out of Door festival at the Damrosch Park Bandshell. The night was billed as having “monstrous mash-ups” of some of the Great White Way’s greatest hits. Sure enough, the audience heard staccato snipes from Burt Bacharach’s and Dionne Warwick’s “Promises Promises” shouted over the melody from West Side Story’s “America,” and lyrics from Duke Ellington’s jazz classic “It Don’t Mean a Thing” sung above the bass line from Stevie Wonder’s “Too High.” These fusions paid tribute to what’s come before, while also waving goodbye to the rules of how one should revere the American songbook.
There’s been much heated discourse on modes of blackness in popular culture and which forms are most appropriate. (Tyler Perry’s films seem to bear the brunt of this scrutiny of late.) Passing Strange hints that current conversations have barely scratched the surface of what our possibilities are. Perhaps our power lies less in routinely retreading rigid traditions and more in honoring new, hybrid ways of seeing the world. Like the show’s main character, perhaps we can have faith that somewhere it’s safe to play.
Clarence A. Haynes is a freelance writer, editor and performing artist based in Brooklyn who writes about gender, sexuality and culture.
Correction: This article originally stated that Passing Strange was airing on HBO on Demand. Please check your local on Demand listings for stations. This error was introduced at the copy-editing stage.