by Walter Bilderback
“My story being done, . . .
She swore, in faith ‘twas strange, ‘twas passing strange.”
– Othello, Act One, Scene 3
Passing Strange is, first and foremost, a coming of age story. Although it shares some moments with Stew’s real life, it is not autobiographical. It’s a musical, but perhaps more accurately a “performance art musical,” if that’s a category. The story follows Youth, from his 1970s adolescence in a South Central LA that doesn’t conform to popular stereotypes, to young adulthood in Amsterdam and West Berlin. There are two central relationships for Youth: one with his mother and another, metatheatrical, one with the Narrator.
Passing Strange also tells a story of an America, which as Youth says, “can’t handle freaky Negros.” As it did for his historical forebears Josephine Baker, “King James Baldwin,” and Jimi Hendrix (plus numerous others), Europe offers Youth an opportunity to create his idiosyncratic art in a way that seems unavailable at home. In conversations with Stew, a theme that recurs is the stereotyping of Black experience. “I mean what would people say if I told them that The Partridge Family was probably the single biggest influence on me becoming a professional musician? That doesn’t fit the standard narrative but I’d like to mention it.”
In the standard narrative, I’d quote James Baldwin here. Although Baldwin is endlessly quotable I’ll go to “Brother Al Camus” instead for a couple observations. “With rebellion, awareness is born,” Camus wrote. Anticipating Youth’s punk rebellion, he also wrote, “I may not have been sure about what really did interest me, but I was absolutely sure about what didn’t.”
But let’s quote Baldwin anyway, on his reasons for going to Paris (and then Istanbul). “Perhaps, as we say in America, I wanted to find myself. This is an interesting phrase, not current as far as I know in the language of any other people, which certainly does not mean what it says but betrays a nagging suspicion that something has been misplaced. I think now that if I had had any intimation that the self I was going to find would turn out to be only the same self from which I had spent so much time in flight, I would have stayed at home. But, again, I think I knew at the very bottom of my heart, exactly what I was doing when I took the boat for France.”
Like Othello’s story, Stew and Heidi’s play is “passing strange.” But it is also about “passing strange.” As the critic and producer Scott Miller notes, Youth is passing through the cities in the play. Miller adds: “But passing has so many other meanings. When it comes to African Americans, passing usually means being light-skinned enough to live as a white person, but here Stew turns that upside down when Franklin introduces the idea of ‘black folks passing for black folks’ – not just passing but passing strange – which then underlines certain moments throughout the rest of the show when the Youth does indeed ‘pass’ for being black. And this definition also suggests the show’s central theme of the masks that all these characters wear to hide from the world.”
Which raises another question: In what ways are each of us “passing strange?”