OPEN STAGES: An Interview with Playwright Christopher Chen

Wilma’s Resident Dramaturg and Literary Manager, Walter Bilderback sat down with playwright Christopher Chen to chat about his career and the world premiere of his new play Passage at the Wilma Theater.  

Walter Bilderback: Let’s start with a general introduction: where are you from? What led you to become a playwright?

Christopher Chen: I was born and raised in San Francisco. I always knew I wanted to be an artist of some kind, and after dabbling in fiction, poetry, music composition, music performance, filmmaking and theater directing, I finally found my medium in playwriting, which to me is a union of all the aforementioned disciplines. I love the way it is a medium of almost endless possibility. I can push far into my literary impulses while grappling with social issues with as much emotional and intellectual intensity as I can. And I can also be the instigator of huge theatrical spectacle. To sit down with pen and paper and let my imagination run with all these artistic extremes is thrilling.

W: You’re known for creating plays of ideas that are emotionally gripping and that “pull the rug out from under the audience’s feet.” (Each play also engage different ideas and pull different rugs.)  I remember reading Caught for the first time and discovering that each scene changed my perception of both the style of the play and what the “story” was. A Bay Area critic has created the hashtag #ChenMindFuck. You seem to distrust conventional narrative as a way to address your concerns: could you talk about that?

C: As an artist, a consumer of art and as a person, I’m interested in being challenged, in having my perception shifted. Upending conventional story structure is a tool for this. I don’t inherently distrust conventional narrative. I am, however, interested in interrogating the ways by which thought and point of view are constructed, and how we trap ourselves– by outside imposition and on our own allowance– inside these constructions. With this interrogation I often find myself turning convention over, since constructing stories for plays is related to how we construct stories for ourselves in the real world. This play, Passage, doesn’t exactly employ the same kinds of extreme rug pulls I’ve used in the past, but it has the same spirit. It is a minimalist fable that upends convention by removing all explicit markers of time and place, so that discussions of race and power that are otherwise familiar to the current discourse are presented in a disarmingly uprooted context. The goal of this familiar/unfamiliar dynamic is to have the audience lean into the dialogue perhaps more than they’re used to, making them engage and question their own internal wrestlings with the issues as they are watching. I want to activate the audience in such a way that they’re forced to bring fifty percent of the content– their own thinking– to the table in real time to complete the experience.

Rug-pulling play CAUGHT (InterAct Theatre Company production). Photo by Kate Raines.

W: You describe Passage as “a fantasia inspired by A Passage to India.” Tell us a little about your interest in Forster and how he relates to today.

C: And actually I would say the piece is a response to his work instead, because it is a contemporary work that is meant to be in dialogue with it across time. The dialogue centers around his themes of human connection across great divides– economic, societal, racial– and how these themes have evolved, morphed, and remain unresolved in our present day. It is also a piece that is in a more personal dialogue with him stylistically. A Passage to India was a formative book for me when I first read it in high school, and remains a key influence on my writing to this day. What I really respond to is the book’s scale. The book examines a big sociopolitical issue across a wide spectrum of the epic and the intimate: From intimate conversations between friends, to the geological formations of the earth as seen from the sky. Forster uses pattern and metaphor in incredibly seamless ways, finding genuinely organic links between the spiritual and the political. I’ve tried to maintain a similar macro-lens ethos myself in all of my plays, including this one. For me, the parallel of America today to the British Raj is that you have one place with completely separate realities existing for different people, with power discrepancies at play that make these differences unbridgeable. Colonialism was an evil proposition that was normalized in the Western mind at the time, along with its accompanying, reprehensible power dynamics. Similar power dynamics exist in America today between groups that, again, are  experiencing completely separate realities simultaneously. So one thing I wanted to do with this piece was to respond to Forster by directly linking colonialism to modern day racism, in the name of giving the systemic nature of today’s racism a different kind of historical parallel.

W: One of the first things that strikes a reader of Passage is that the characters are identified not by name but by letter – B, Q, F, for example – and a note says “Race, Gender and sexuality are fluid.” Talk to us a little about your decision to do this.

C: The goals of this are twofold. First, it is about disruption. The experiment of this play is to get at foundational human dynamics at play within a situation of extreme power imbalance. We carry a lot of baggage and preconceptions when thinking about who has power and who doesn’t in America, and so with this piece I wanted to see what would happen if we shed a lot of these traditional markers in order to isolate the specific problem of individual perception within the equation. By encouraging fluidity and diversity across a number of different variables, the idea is to let a greater degree of humanity within characters come forth as they push against a fundamentally imbalanced power structure. Second, I purposefully wanted to create a minimalist fable that was wide open to diverse collaborators, so that the piece could be performed in different communities with different contexts. (Hence the two locations are Country X and Country Y.) My hope is that each group that takes this play on will make it resonate in ways specific to them. You will find that this production will land in a very specific way based on the casting within this group. And that is the point. Once specific bodies inhabit the roles, the play becomes specific. In the same way that interpreters find different resonances in Shakespeare and Greek tragedies across time and place, I purposefully sought to write a play that was elastic and foundational enough to be taken and molded and owned by different persons across time and place too.

W: You were able to be with us in December for a workshop with the cast. What was that experience like for you as a writer? What most excites you going into rehearsal?

C: It is safe to say I have never had a text engaged with in this manner before. Through a series of innovative exercises focusing on putting the text of the play immediately and directly into the bodies and voices of the actors (as opposed to psychoanalytic table work), I was able to experience my play anew. The HotHouse process is deliberate, rigorous and, quite frankly, astonishing. Sentence for sentence, word for word, they uprooted layers of humanism and poetic truth to the characters I didn’t know were there. Their work brought forth the central nervous system of the play in such an unexpected way that I found myself shifting my perspective of how theater should be practiced. I’m looking forward to diving into rehearsals with this group of amazing artists. I’ve developed a deep respect for each person involved, and am grateful beyond words that they chose to engage with my work.

Passage begins at The Wilma Theater on April 18 and runs through May 13. To purchase your tickets call the Wilma Box Office at 215-546-7824 or go online at

Photo of Christopher Chen by Sasha Arutyunova. Photo of the Wilma HotHouse Company by David Sarrafian.

Musical Influences

Stew had a passion for music from a young age. Between singing gospel at church and joining an R&B band at 14, his influences span every genre, from Gospel to Pink Floyd. Stew said in an interview with Wilma Dramaturg Walter Bilderback, “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.”

While abroad in Berlin in the 1980s, he played with a mixed-media art group The Wonderful Guise. Stew categorizes his work with The Negro Problem as “Afro-Baroque Cabaret,” a term all his own. This diversity of taste clearly influenced the music in Passing Strange.






Content courtesy of The Wilma Theater’s Passing Strange Education Guide.


Stew and Heidi’s band The Negro Problem was the band in the original production of Passing Strange. Because of this close musical and personal relationship, the band is an integral part of the show; they answer the call-and-response of the Narrator and interject with song and dialogue. The band is a character itself, telling the story along with the actors.

The Wilma’s Passing Strange band was not a group before this project. Since Stew went through the original Passing Strange process with his band, he knew that to make it musically successful, the four musicians for the Wilma’s Passing Strange would have to become a band. So they had band practice: the four musicians have been practicing with Stew and Heidi since September. Once Stew thought they were ready, the band needed a gig. On December 11th, 2017, the Wilma’s Passing Strange band had a rock concert in Good Karma Café. An audience of Passing Strange super fans, Wilma patrons, and University of the Arts students together to rock out with Stew and the new Passing Strange band.

MUSIC DIRECTOR AND PIANIST AMANDA MORTON hails from Albany, NY. Amanda has a B.F.A. in Musical Theatre from Ithaca College. Amanda is a Senior Lecturer at University of the Arts.

DRUMMER BEN DIAMOND hails from San Diego, CA and got his B.A. in Music from Haverford College. Ben is a freelance teacher, musician, and composer working in Philadelphia.

BASS GUITARIST ELLYN HEALD is a musician and actress currently residing in Brooklyn, NY. Ellyn received her M.A. from London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts for Classical Acting.

GUITARIST JAKE HAGER is a Philadelphia-based musician and music teacher, both playing in pit orchestras and his own bands. He worked with Stew back in 2015, accompanying him for a piece at University of the Arts.

Content courtesy of The Wilma Theater’s Passing Strange Education Guide.

PASSING STRANGE: Production History/ Location, Location, Location



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.

Lindsay Smiling, Savannah L. Jackson, Stew, Anthony Martinez-Briggs, and Kimberly S. Fairbanks at Opening Night of Passing Strange. Photo by Kristin Finger.

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.


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.


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.


by Walter Bilderback

“My story being done, . . .
She swore, in faith ‘twas strange, ‘twas passing strange.”
Othello, Act One, Scene 3

James Baldwin in Paris, 1949

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?”

OPEN STAGES ONLINE: Life of Lorca, Part 5

by Walter Bilderback, Production Dramaturg

Mural of Lorca on 120 Lafayette Street in Manhattan.

Lorca’s Death

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.

OPEN STAGES ONLINE: Life of Lorca, Part 4

by Walter Bilderback, Production Dramaturg

Top: The production of ‘Blood Wedding’, directed by Anthony Clark, at the Contact Theatre, Manchester, 1987; the wedding guests. Bottom: The Company of ‘Blood Wedding’ at The Wilma theater. Photo by Bill Hebert.

Blood Wedding

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.

OPEN STAGES ONLINE: Life of Lorca, Part 3

by Walter Bilderback, Production Dramaturg

New York and the New World

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.

Co-director Eduardo Ugarte and Lorca, in their Barraca uniforms, during a tour with the company, 1932.


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