By Dwight Brown NNPA Film Critic
“Life is a movie starring you,” says Stew.
Over the years, film (Why Did I Get Married), TV (The Cosby Show) and theater (Love in The Nick of Tyme) have portrayed the black middle-class. What they’ve yet to do is capture the antics of adolescent rebellion within this social strata. It’s hard to reduce the Tony Award winning musical (Best Book)Passing Strange to such a simple theme, but in its purest form, that is the lifeblood of this infectiously entertaining, semi-autobiographical theater piece.
A stout musician named Stew, who looks more like an eclectically dressed football center with bifocals than a rock star, is the focal point of this rock/soul/pop musical. His life is on view. On stage, Stew is the narrator/ Greek chorus/philosopher who oversees the inquisitive behavior of his younger alter ego played by Tony-nominee Daniel Breaker. Breaker, in a versatile, chameleon performance, chronicles Stew’s evolution from teen to adult, starting back in L.A., when a very traditional single mother (Eisa Davis) attempts to parent him.
Mom is determined to guide her vulnerable son with the help and protection of their local church; he is not the least bit interested. Until, he joins the choir and meets a very cantankerous pastor’s son (Colman Dimingo) who rants about the wild, ultra cultured and tolerant life in Europe that embraced expatriates like James Baldwin, Josephine Baker and Richard Wright. Stew takes the hint, and once he escapes to Amsterdam and Berlin his eyes are wide-opened.
Stew’s afro-euro connection and counter-culture experience cause reflections on black American life, traditional family values and growing up that ring true for middle class African Americans, and middle class folks in general. Hence the popularity of this show, it touches people. No wonder it went on to garner seven Tony nominations. Its themes, plotline, language and worldly questions strike a common chord.
Its format, a small ensemble of black actors on a sparse stage with virtually no scenery, minimal lighting and a few rock musicians, is daringly simple, and surprising imaginative. Credit the talented cast, who play various characters – from childhood friends to benevolent European strangers – that affected Stew’s growing pains. Their evocative performances and versatility feign parked cars, church pews, dope dens and orgies and you hardly notice that there are no props.
The story is told through narration, dialogue and lyrics. Following the plot to Stew’s metamorphous into adulthood is amazingly easy, and a credit to his strong writing. This show’s almost experimental nature evolved from a Sundance Theater Lab workshop, to a Berkeley Rep project in California, to New York’s Public Theater, and then Broadway. Its journey concludes with this filming of the stage play over two nights and a filming of the musical without an audience. The footage was edited together into a motion picture that looks more like a PBS documentary than a film. Animation, locations, sets, etc. would have opened the story up to a wider audience. But even as a literal translation,Passing Strange remains hugely entertaining, poignant, funny and thoughtful.
As directed by Spike Lee, the film has few embellishments and too many close-ups. A lot of the lighting is too dark and uninviting. And the digital camerawork makes the colors look very cold, and the figures look almost one-dimensional. Celluloid is hard to work with and more cumbersome, but the results are warmer richer colors and a depth that evades digital movies. Something is missing in this screen translation… In the theater, this project resembled a rock concert and dance performance; from a distance you could see all the performers and the lines their body movements created. Can’t say that about the movie. Also, indoors an audience feels a certain glee from the cast and a loving affection that radiates from Stew on stage. It’s almost like going to church and feeling the spirit. Sometimes film trumps theater, but in this case the theater experience is superior.
What are in tact on screen are the agile performances (including: de’Adre Aziza, Chad Goodridge, Rebecca Naomi Jones), cheeky-non-stop dialogue (“You have to go to another country if you want to get your Giovanni’s Room on”) and Stew and co-composer Heidi Rodewald’s catchy music like the songsAmsterdam, Keys and We Just Had Sex.
Stew’s life observances will make you rethink your own core values and relationships with your parents. His life is a revelation of achievements and regrets that is bared on stage with an enthusiasm that far overshadows any of the confines of this digital, way too literal screen adaptation that doesn’t enhance the material. There is so much to learn regardless…
Stew, “Weird when you wake up one morning and realize that your entire adult life was based on a decision made by a teenager.” Amen brother.