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Passing Strange

September 29, 2007

 

Passing Strangely Through Blackness

Kwan Booth

For the last couple of weeks, downtown Berkeley has had a serious Negro Problem, and it’s name is Stew. Since mid October, Stew has been appearing in the play, “Passing Strange”, a coming of age travelogue that follows a young man’s search for self, art and “The Real” from Los Angeles through the wild streets of Amsterdam and Germany.
This is the first play written by the single monickered Stew, founder of the critically acclaimed LA pop rock band “The Negro Problem”. It’s mainly a search for identity as the main character, known only as “The Youth”, played by Daniel Breaker, follows in the expatriate footsteps of “King James Baldwin and Queen Josephine Baker”, two black Americans famous for their journeys to Europe in search of artistic freedom.
With Stew as the narrator and his band sunk into the Rep’s stage, The Youth questions everything, beginning with the black church. When his mother, played by Eisa Davis (Angela’s niece), delivers a blazing monologue on it’s historical importance, declaring “there’s nothing like a good black church” The Youth stings her with “well how come you never go?”
Ironically, it’s the church that gives him his first taste of the bohemian lifestyle he craves. After making the connection between the rhythms of gospel music and the blues, Youth joins the church choir where he’s introduced to the flamboyant Mr. Franklin, played fabulously by Colman Domingo. Franklin woos the young man with strong weed, operas by Giacomo Puccini and tales of black artists finding freedom overseas. “You gotta go to another country” Franklin tells the choir, “if you wanna go to Giovanni’s Room,” referring to Baldwin’s 1956 novel about sexual identity in post-World War II France.
Like many artists before him, the youth eventually makes his way to Europe on a self discovery journey one of his relatives describes as being “for white folks”. Landing in Amsterdam, a city whose liberal views on life, sex and drugs make “Berkeley look like the Bible Belt”, Youth “learns to wear his body”. And after experiencing life as a free love making, hash smoking, drawling singer songwriter (Stew admits he’s a big admirer of Bob Dylan) The Youth continues his quest to Berlin.

Once he’s lost in the city’s “chaos sanctuary”, the cast really shines. After seeing caricatures of black people for years, it’s something liberating about watching an all black cast in leather chaps and furs mimicking anarchists and extremist German art snobs.

Amid a wall of multicolored lights and an operatic pop music score, “Passing Strange” speaks in a voice rarely heard in mainstream arts-the experimental black artist, defining himself in a world that refuses him. In one scene Franklin tells Youth they are just alike: two brothers “Passing for black folks.”
Eventually, Youth is called back to America and realizes that for all his searching, the major thing that needed to be changed in order to become an artist was himself. He needed to be confident in his vision and to finally see that, as dancer Bill T. Jones once said “If you want to love and be loved-really loved-by black people, make sure they know who you really are.” Like the title suggests, sometimes passing really is a strange trip.

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