Thursday, Dec. 31, 2009

Passing Strange

Spike Lee’s Musical

By David Luhrssen
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On a Broadway littered with silly trash, Passing Strange was an outstanding production from the decade just ending. A musical by Stew (with Heidi Rodewald), Passing Strange is the semi-autobiographical story of an African American coming of age in the late ‘70s who transcends all stereotypes and overspills every perceived boundary. Raised in middle class Los Angeles, the protagonist (called Youth) rebels against the Baptist church while being attracted to the ecstasy of the music. He forms a punk rock band with fellow choir members (rap plays no part in this story) and follows the exile road of James Baldwin and Josephine Baker as an African American artist in Europe, only to find that the journey brings him home again.

Spike Lee filmed several performances and edited the footage into a superb cinematic presentation, PassingStrange: The Movie (out Jan. 12 on DVD). While lacking the visceral experience of live theater, the cameras bring us up close from angles impossible on Broadway. Well acted, brilliantly conceived and staged with starkly minimal props and expressive body language as well as dialogue, Passing Strange is anchored on the performance of a live rock band, led by Stew on vocals and guitar. Unlike such lame efforts as Rent, the music actually rocks and would be good listening outside the context of the stage production.

Stew’s narration serves as hindsight commentary on his youthful protagonist. The book is poetic and funny, capturing the pain, joy, discovery and regret of Youth’s journey of self-discovery. With great sophistication and empathy, Passing Strange mocks yet honors the many perspectives of the supporting characters as well as the evolving Youth, sending up sanctimonious hypocrisy, pseudo-intellectualism, artistic humbug and crackbrained militancy as Youth flees the U.S. to escape the prison of American perceptions of blackness—a jailhouse guarded by blacks as well as whites. Youth is forever in search of “the Real,” which by the end proves a far more elusive concept than he had ever imagined.

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