Stew maps out Youth’s travels to find “The Real” through song. Explaining his personal experiences influencing Passing Strange, Stew says, “It’s a 46 year-old guy looking back at the things that he did and the values he had in his 20s, sort of when you’re making that decision to really be an artist,” (NPR, 2007). The journey of Stew is documented in his music: the church of suburban LA; the funky, psychedelic life of Amsterdam; and the militarized, radical world of Berlin.
Content courtesy of The Wilma Theater’s Passing Strange Education Guide.
In 1997, Stew formed a band, The Negro Problem. Heidi Rodewald joined the group in 1999 and became Stew’s frequent collaborator. Stew said in an interview with Spike Lee: “It started on a club stage in front of about 150 people playing songs. Public Theater, downtown New York, was interested. They thought it might be a play. I wasn’t sure if it would… but I knew it could be something.” After that, a piece following a young African-American traveling through Europe called Travelogue was work shopped first at Berkeley Repertory and later Sundance Theater Lab. Through those workshops, it became the Passing Strange we know today, opening Off-Broadway at the Public Theater in 2007 and at the Belasco Theatre on Broadway in 2008. It ran for 165 performance and Stew won a Tony Award for Best Book. In 2008, Spike Lee made Passing Strange: The Movie, a documentary recording of the original production.
Passing Strange isn’t what you would call a standard Broadway musical; it’s a “rock musical.” In an NPR interview, Stew said: “The goal being to bring the actual music that one hears in a club to the stage — not through some kind of theatrical musical-theater filter. ‘Rock’ musical — that term ‘rock’ should really be in quotations, right? Because it’s not really rock music that anyone who likes rock music would actually listen to.”
In 2016, Alyssa Rosenberg wrote an article in The Washington Post likening Passing Strange to the Broadway smash-hit Hamilton. “Even eight years after its premiere, [Passing Strange] feels like a musical sent from
the future to challenge the expectations for what a black Broadway show might be like… It’s high time Hamilton-lovers and anyone else who cares about weird, smart, highly personal art rediscover Passing Strange.” Ten years after its Broadway premiere, the Wilma is ready to rediscover Passing Strange.
HOW STEW CAME TO THE WILMA
In the fall of 2014, Joanna Settle directed the Wilma’s production of Rapture, Blister, Burn. Joanna and Stew had collaborated on projects previously, so Stew was a natural choice to compose the original music for the production. Through Rapture, Blister, Burn, Wilma Artistic Director Blanka Zizka and Stew became collaborators. For the 2016 Philadelphia Fringe Festival, the Wilma produced Stew and Heidi’s piece Notes of a Native Song. Stew also translated and arranged the protest songs for the Wilma’s world premiere production of Adapt! in 2017. After years of collaborations, the Wilma is thrilled to produce the first major revival of Passing Strange.
PASSING STRANGE CO-CREATORS
Stew (Co-Creator) Mark Stewart (born August 16, 1961) is an American singer-songwriter and playwright. He was born in Los Angeles and grew up heavily involved in the Baptist church. He briefly moved to New York in 1982 for the growing punk rock movement before heading to Europe. He lived in Amsterdam and Berlin for five years each before returning to LA in his late 20s. Nowadays, he is most often known by his stage name, Stew. Stew wrote the book and lyrics for Passing Strange. Stew also co-wrote the music with Heidi Rodewald and
starred in the original production as the Narrator. Between his personal and musical influences, the DNA of Passing Strange comes straight from Stew’s life.
“It’s what I like to call autobiographical fiction, in that every single thing that’s happening on the stage, I can point to something in my life, some kind of corollary…” -Stew, NPR, 2008
Heidi Rodewald (Co-Composer and Bass Player)
Heidi Rodewald is a singer, composer, arranger, and music producer from Los Angeles, California. Heidi joined Stew’s band The Negro Problem as the bassist in 1999. After almost a decade of collaboration, Heidi and Stew cocomposed all of the music for Passing Strange.
“I’m a girl in a rock band — I never expected to be doing this.” -Heidi Rodewald, NPR, 2008
Heidi and Stew have co-composed three other musicals together: Family Album (2013), a story of a middle-aged rock ‘n’ roller reflecting on the choices he’s made; Notes of a Native Song (2015), a musical homage to James Baldwin; and The Total Bent (2016), a story about a young musical prodigy coming of age in the music industry. Stew said to Fresh Air in 2008, “I know what this means to Heidi’s family, they’ve done theater…And the idea that Heidi is the one person in the family who decided to join punk rock bands rather than, you know, be an actress and now suddenly she’s the one on Broadway. It’s like a fairy tale. It’s too much.”
Content courtesy of The Wilma Theater’s Passing Strange Education Guide.
“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?”
In the years after Blood Wedding premiered, Lorca finished two more plays set in rural Andalusia: Yerma and The House of Bernarda Alba. While both have elements of stylization, neither has characters like the Moon or the Beggar in Blood Wedding.
While this was happening, Spain itself moved closer to catastrophe. The Republican government was voted out in 1933. In advance of the 1936 elections, all segments of liberals and the left came together in the Popular Front. Lorca had been apolitical, but became more committed to progressive causes after 1933. He spoke at public gatherings and wrote group statements for publication. He also began work on a political play, The Dream of Life, which one friend described as “situating us in a new theatrical world, where the boundaries between stage, audience, and street are broken down.” The play, unfortunately, was never finished.
In February of 1936, the Republicans and their allies won an electoral victory that resulted in a two-thirds majority in parliament. The defeated forces of the right immediately rallied behind the fascist Falange party of the former dictator Primo de Rivera. The Falange mounted a series of disruptions and assassinations that soon resulted in de Rivera’s arrest and a State of Emergency being declared. Throughout the spring and early summer tensions heightened, with assassinations by both sides, until a group of conservative generals, led by Francisco Franco, staged a coup on July 17-18. The Spanish Civil War had begun.
Lorca’s parents had left Madrid for their home in Granada. Lorca now followed them. Unfortunately, Granada was a Falangist stronghold, one of the few in southern Spain at the time. Lorca’s brother-in-law, a local Republican official, was arrested and executed shortly afterward. Lorca learned he was being hunted and hid in the house of a childhood friend, ironically the son of a Falangist official. He stayed there until he was arrested by militia on August 16.
On the night on August 18, 1936, Lorca was murdered by his captors. His gravesite has never been found. The Falangists first denied his death, then claimed it was the action of a few rogue officers, claims that have been disproved.
Many of Lorca’s friends had urged him to flee Spain as the Civil War grew more imminent. He could easily have gone to Mexico, but stayed (in several biographers’ opinion) to remain close to Rodrigo Rodriguez Rapun, the last great love of his life, whom Lorca met in his time leading the touring Barraca theater troupe during the Republic. Coincidentally, Rapun died on the first anniversary of Lorca’s death, in combat against the fascists.
The Spanish Civil War continued until March 1939. Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and the Soviet Union all used the war to test weaponry and tactics – a rehearsal for the Second World War. Other volunteers, including George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway, came as well: most to support the Republicans, some to support the Fascists. More than 600,000 people died in that, time, including at least 30,000 Republicans executed after the end of the war. Close to one-half million more fled the country. Democracy did not return to Spain until after Franco’s death in 1975.
During a break in the schedule of the touring company La Barraca, Lorca began work on Blood Wedding, which would become his first real theatrical success. Leslie Stainton describes the play as essentially “a long poem, in which passages of verse and prose combine to produce a lyrical portrait of Spain and its people.”
“To readers of Gypsy Ballads and Poem of the Deep Song [two earlier books of poetry by Lorca], this was familiar ground. Blood Wedding re-creates the archetypal Spain of those collections—a region steeped in passion and blood, in popular Andalusian imagery and song, a world where nature reigns. . . . Nature itself is a protagonist, most provocatively in the forest scene, where the Moon—a ‘young woodcutter with a white face’—appears, seeking blood to warm his icy flesh. Characters throughout the play recall the cycles of nature: the planting and harvesting of crops, the earth’s rotation from day to night, and from birth to death. Had his most distant childhood memories not borne the ‘flavor of the earth,’ Lorca reflected, ‘I could not have written Blood Wedding.’ The play allowed him to capture the details of the Andalusian countryside ‘with the same spirit I felt in my boyhood years.’”
Lorca’s experience with La Barraca affected his involvement with the premiere of the play. Although Eduardo Marquina was officially the director, by all accounts the playwright ran the rehearsals. He had developed a directorial style of his own. According to Stainton, “He brought to the task a painter’s sense of composition and a musician’s understanding of timing. Rhythm—the tempo of the performance—was crucial.” (Csaba Horvath’s direction of the Wilma’s production of Blood Wedding is entirely faithful to Lorca’s spirit in these regards.)
Lorca’s brother later said that the playwright attended every rehearsal and essentially functioned as the director. The actor playing the Groom recounted that “no play in the Spanish theater has ever been rehearsed so thoroughly.”
Blood Wedding opened on March 8, 1933. During the “Awaken the Bride” sequence in the play’s second act, the audience stopped the performance with applause and demands that Lorca come onstage to take a bow. He was called up onstage at the end of each act. The reviews were, with few exceptions, raves. “I feel calm and content, because I’ve had the first great triumph of my life,” Lorca told a friend.
As the twenties went on, Lorca’s prominence as a poet increased, especially with the publication of his Gypsy Ballads in 1928. In 1929, Lorca went to New York City for a year, studying and lecturing at Columbia University as well as absorbing the art and culture of the Harlem Renaissance, an experience he documented in his book of poems A Poet in New York (published posthumously). During his stay in New York, biographer Leslie Stainton writes, Lorca discovered he “was a poet of the land, not of steel girders and asphalt streets, and the longer he remained in New York, the more he understood this.” From that point, his writing focused on the rural life of Andalusia, particularly Granada. Before returning to Spain, he also spent time in Havana and in Buenos Aires, where he found a second artistic home for his plays.
Spain in upheaval
Lorca returned to a Spain on verge of huge changes. In 1931, national elections put a Republican government in power, replacing the military dictatorship of Primo de Rivera that had lasted nearly a decade. Among the new government’s goals was reducing illiteracy in the rural provinces. A group of Madrid college students created La Barraca, a traveling theater company dedicated to the plays of Spain’s Golden Age – plays written by writers such as Lope de Vega, Calderon de la Barca, and Cervantes. The company hired Lorca as its director. With La Barraca, Lorca found a renewed passion for theater, directing and designing productions, as well as sometimes acting himself.
La Barraca and Blood Wedding
In his book Lorca: Living in the Theatre, author Gwynne Edwards suggests that Lorca’s activities with La Barraca had a considerable effect on the subject matter and the style of his own writing. Although music was used selectively in his earlier work, nowhere was it employed more extensively than in Blood Wedding, and this clearly owed something to Lorca’s work with La Barraca.
Blood Wedding also seems, in many ways, a continuation of the great tradition of seventeenth-century Spanish drama, both in its tragic structure founded upon fate and impossible demands of personal “honor,” and in characters such as The Moon and The Beggar. One of Lorca’s major productions with La Barraca was Calderon’s mystery play Life is a Dream, in which he played the role of The Shadow, an eerie personification of one of Lorca’s constant obsessions, death. (By luck, a few moments of his performance has survived on film from the period, which can be seen at the tail end of the above YouTube video.)
Blood Wedding ends it run at The Wilma Theater on November 19. See this riveting production and get your ticket today at WilmaTheater.org/BloodWedding.
The friendship between Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dali was particularly intense. For a period they were almost inseparable, with Lorca a frequent guest of Dali’s parents. Lorca appears in many of Dali’s paintings and drawings during this time: in several cases, Lorca’s face casts a shadow of Dali’s profile. Dali ended the friendship abruptly when he moved to France. There is still no confirmed reason why he did so, but several of Lorca’s biographers believe Dali, who may well have been Lorca’s lover, was frightened by Lorca’s public reputation as a gay man. (Dali was always very careful to pitch his outrageous persona within the frame of public acceptance.) Luis Buñuel also broke off his friendship with Lorca over the poet’s sexuality: the surrealist classic Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog) is widely considered to be a veiled attack on Lorca.
Lorca and Dali briefly reconciled when Dali returned to Spain in the year before Lorca’s murder. Dali by this time was praising both Hitler and Franco, and, perhaps because he wanted to appease Franco’s government, Dali did not condemn the murder for decades. His initial response was horrifying: “The moment of learned of his death . . . I cried ‘Ole!’ That’s what a Spaniard says in the presence of a bullfighter who has just executed a particularly successful move before a bleeding beast. I thought that for Lorca, it was the most beautiful way of dying: killed by the Civil War.”
Federico Garcia Lorca was perhaps the most important Spanish-language writer of the first half of the 20th century, known both for his poetry and his plays. During his short life, he wrote thirteen plays, the best-known of which are Blood Wedding (1932), Yerma (1934), and The House of Bernarda Alba (1936).
Garcia Lorca was born in 1898, the son of a well-to-do Andalusian landowner. He studied music from a young age, becoming a talented pianist: his love and knowledge of music would profoundly shape his writing and his stage direction in later years.
Lorca’s birthplace, Asquerosa (now Valderrubio), was a town with many similarities to the setting of Blood Wedding. His father was known for treating his workers well, but the young Lorca, seeing the harsh conditions in which the peasants worked and the equally harsh restrictions placed on women in a conservative, rural, Catholic setting, had a keen sense of his privilege from a young age. From a young age, he seems to have has a tragic vision of life. His biographer Leslie Stainton says that “Lorca learned early on that life and death were two halves of an indecipherable whole.”
Lorca left home for university in Madrid, where he studied and lived in La Residencia, an intellectual and artistic hotbed of the period. There he became known as a leader of the group of young writers and artists there, many influenced by Symbolism and Surrealism, who were re-invigorating Spanish literature. Among his friends at the time were the young artists Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel.
Lorca achieved fame in Spain at a young age with his first volume of poems. He also became a friend and collaborator of the composer Manuel de Falla, through whom he developed a strong interest in traditional Spanish music and dance, particularly the cante jondo (or “deep song”), a particularly old relative of flamenco. “Deep song is imbued with the mysterious color of primordial ages,” Lorca said in a lecture on the subject. It “is akin to the trilling of birds, the crowing of the rooster, and the natural music of forest and fountain” and “comes from the first sob and the first kiss.” His volume Poem of the Deep Song, written in 1921 but not published until 1931, reflects this interest. Many of these poems anticipate images and themes that reappear in Blood Wedding. Here are two:
He lay dead in the street
With a knife in the heart
No one knew him.
How the street-lamp trembled!
How the little street-lamp
It was early morning. No one
Could look at his eyes
Open to the harsh air.
For he lay dead in the street
With a knife in the heart
And no one knew him.
(trans, Gwynne Edwards)
The Six Strings
cries out to dreams.
The sobs of the lost
escape from its round
And like a tarantula
it weaves a great star
to catch sighs,
floating in their black
cistern of wood.
A week ago or so, I had a realization in rehearsal: Fate is almost an invisible character in Blood Wedding, but we weren’t acknowledging its presence. The concept is almost alien to American popular culture, with its emphasis on individualism, self-help and self-improvement, but the action of Blood Wedding barely makes sense without recognizing its power. (Questions about these assumptions seem to be emerging as a recurrent theme in this year’s plays. I’ll be talking more about this with both Passing Strange and Passage.) Fate, as it appears in Blood Wedding, is something ultimately beyond individual choice, moral or otherwise.
The word appears multiple times in Blood Wedding. In a completely traditional production of the play, Fate is even represented onstage, in a ball of red thread children play with. The classical world saw a human life as a thread cut off by impersonal, outside forces. The length and shape of a life was pre-determined. The individual’s responsibility was to live the best life within this pre-determined shape: attempting to resist or evade it was a cause of tragedy. Sophocles’ Oedipus is a prime example. His parents’, and then his own attempts to avoid the prophesied curse places him in the path of his father and the bed of his mother, with disastrous results not only for the three of them but for Thebes as well. In the same way, Leonardo and the Bride attempt to resist their fate and cause greater damage to their community.
Lorca adds a twist to this in Blood Wedding. One sort of fate seems to hang upon the dryland village where the play takes place, the same sort that hung upon the peasants Lorca had seen as a child – an endless cycle of struggle, loveless marriages, violence, and social convention. Against this is a different sort of fate hanging over the Bride and Leonardo, an individual fate thwarted because of Leonardo’s poverty. Many biographers see echoes of Lorca’s life as a gay man in a conservative, patriarchal society in Blood Wedding. Lorca scholar Gwynne Edwards sees “Lorca’s growing belief that one should be true to one’s nature, whatever one’s sexuality” as an important theme of the play. As director Csaba Horvath has pointed out in rehearsals, all of the play’s characters want to conform to their society’s demands: it is the tension between that and the red thread of Fate which creates tragedy for the entire community.
Director Csaba Horváth began his career as a dancer, performing Hungarian folk dance before moving on to contemporary styles. He later became a choreographer and finally a theater director, developing a unique style. “The folk dance, especially when you encounter it as young as I did, when one is susceptible to all things, lives for a lifetime,” he says. “It gives you ammunition from which you can move and transform everywhere movement, choreography, dance, and some kind of way of thinking.” This background also carries on in his long collaboration with composer Csaba Ökrös, who (following the inspiration of Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly) draws upon Hungarian folk music as inspiration for his melodies.
As a director, Horváth says “the most exciting thing in this game is to handle the proportion of language and movement.” He begins his preparations with some general ideas for a gestural system inspired by his reading of the piece. “I’m looking for solutions, decodings, which bring forth the essence of the work, the essence inherent in the piece.” But the performance is shaped in rehearsal, through working with the specific actors he has in the room with him. “I’m always looking for the physical toolbox and trying to use it in the most exciting way. But it all depends on how much the material needs. Getting to know this is like stepping on a minefield. But that makes me excited, perhaps because working with the body is more subtle than the traditional acting actor, and requires theatricality. It’s harder to lie with your body.”
Horváth’s productions always live music (usually original), often played and sung by the actors. This will be true with the Wilma’s Blood Wedding as well. In the hands of his actors, musical instruments can also become objects and persons, such as a tree or a baby. Props are rare in Horváth’s staging: they are usually absent or indicated by gesture, but when they do appear they are likely to be used in unusual fashion: like musical instruments, they can sometimes become characters as well.
In shaping his production of Blood Wedding, Horváth remarks that the play “takes place in a closed and strict environment, where traditions define the life. The story is a sweeping love story that turns against these traditions, and culminates in death. The passionate poetry that characterizes Lorca’s drama is very close to the theater language I like to do. This language builds on a physical presence and the music of the actors outside the text. In my work, I always strive to make the gestural system that I compose bring the audience close to the poetic depths of the text.”
With his sensitivity to movement, gesture, music, and rhythm, Horváth’s work on Blood Wedding is very much in the spirit of the play, and of the approach Lorca himself took when he directed its premiere. Describing Lorca’s work as a director, his biographer Leslie Stainton writes: “He brought to the task a painter’s sense of composition and a musician’s understanding of timing. Rhythm—the tempo of the performance—was crucial.” From the accounts of the actors and observers, Lorca treated Blood Wedding like a musical score in rehearsal: Stainton says “he focused on rhythm, timing, and sound.” This is also an accurate description of Csaba Horváth in rehearsal for the Wilma’s production.