Thursday, June 26, 2008

review: passing strange

I finally saw the musical Passing Strange, which I’ve been wanting to see for some time, last night. I thought it was incredible, and without giving anything major away (I hope, but if you really don’t want anything ruined, I’d stop here) will proceed to explain why.

The play is a coming-of-age story about a young black man from L.A., raised somewhat in the Baptist church and played (intentionally?) by an actor who bore somewhat of a resemblance to a young James Baldwin, who flees to Europe to “find himself” as an artist. The writer, co-composer, etc. etc., Stew, is also the narrator and basically co-lead. And if you haven’t figured out by the end of the play that the story is a bit autobiographical, a subtle face-to-face talk between Stew and the young protagonist, wearing almost-identical outfits, will probably clue you in.

Among the plays many strengths were a number of great songs, fantastic wit and humor (I’m looking at you, English phrases translated into 2-3 sentences by new-to-english Europeans), a great many glorious meta-moments (if you don’t know I love those, we’ve probably never met), and phenomenal acting. Among its weaknesses…I’m actually hard-pressed. I think the only thing that really irked me was the occasional sense of self-importance on the part of Stew, but even that grew on me by the time we got to intermission.

The play was extremely intelligent and handled a lot of issues around black identity, black countercultures, class in the black community, and the quintessential conundrum Baldwin lays out so beautifully in his essay “on the discovery of what it means to be american.” To share a scene with you (to the best of my memory), the main character, in his attempt to be legitimized as a true artist and revolutionary, claims all of black american oppression, saying “you don’t know what it’s like to have to hustle for a dime on the streets of South Central L.A.!” cue narrator: “no one in this play knows what it’s like to have to hustle for a dime on the streets of south central L.A.”

The play was full of this type of social commentary that felt light-hearted, got the audience to laugh, and then brought you back within yourself to realize the gravity of the point made so lightly on the stage. As always, it was fascinating to watch the audience and see who was still laughing when it wasn’t really a joke anymore. The narrator interacted with the audience in a very natural way, the cast interacted with the band equally seamlessly, and the result was a pleasantly self-aware, amusing, and thought-provoking production that I highly recommend to anyone who gets the chance to see it. It was great.

1 comment:

brotherkomrade said...

Yep I'm getting my ticket ASAP. Been wanting to see it too. I told a friend of mine back in Houston that if you were one of those alternative Afros growing up in the hood, you need to see this show. He may fly up to see it.