Perhaps my previous tastes in musical theatre were a bit narrow. I grew up watching musicals featuring powerhouse vocalists who would twirl, leap and tap their way through major chord harmonies (save for the ~one~ ballad), and overexpress throughout to bring fire to mostly predictable plotlines. And I can’t lie - I love that stuff! It has great entertainment value, and it often serves as a way for me to escape my life for two hours, give or take.
Austene Van’s presentation of Passing Strange at Yellow Tree Theatre is not like those musicals, nor was it an escape. Rather, it cleverly presented some of the thrills and ills of young Black escapism on a brilliantly designed stage, with some entertaining twirls and leaps and angsty moments in between.
Passing Strange, written by Stew with music by Heidi Rodewald, is a rock musical about a young man’s artistic and personal journey, and the influences of the people in his life as he moves from South Central Los Angeles to Europe to pursue his musical dreams and independence.
The Narrator (Malo Adams), who expertly navigated storytelling, singing, and guitar-playing all at once, introduced himself and “set the scene, in a big two-story Black middle-class dream”. We learn that the Youth’s (Valencia Proctor) discontentment with his Mother’s (Jamecia Bennett) performative churchiness and with his place in society has set him on the hunt for ‘the Real’.
Sitting in the audience for Passing Strange felt like watching A Spike Lee Joint (and discovering that Spike Lee did in fact direct a filmed staging of this show was the least surprising and most mentally satisfying thing). All the concepts, non-names, and concepts-as-names let me know that this was going to be more exploratory and self-reflective than the musicals I was used to. While I sat in a bit of uncertainty for some of the first half (as I often do while watching Spike Lee joints), I believed that the loose ends would eventually be tied. I might attribute some of my confusion in the first half to audio issues. I had to lean in at points to hear the actors, and it seemed like a microphone or two went out. But upon arrival in Europe, the audio issues dissipated.
The aforementioned loose ends certainly came together in the second half, and more ‘aha’ moments came as we approached maybe the largest ‘aha’ of them all, the Youth’s apex (“Identity”/”The Black One”). This, for me, was the moment where it became evident that the concept was actually quite simple and very familiar to me. I was made to confront a truth I might never escape. To be young, Black, and in pursuit of a real artistic and personal identity is a difficult thing.
The ensemble (Maje Adams, Michelle de Joya, Erin Nicole Farste, and Antonio Rios-Luna), dressed in mostly casual, 70’s influenced attire and Converse sneakers, was exceptional throughout. They all shone notably when they traveled across the ocean mid-show to flawlessly assume the identities of European artists, sex-havers, and revolutionaries. Throughout the show, I clocked my bias towards vocal harmonies, massive choruses, riffs, runs, flair, and fancy, because this ensemble didn’t bring exactly that. What they did lend to the show was masterful storytelling through simple melodies, honest expressions, and humor. What I had to remember, and what I would remind those who will see Passing Strange, is that the vocal flips and tricks might take away our attention from the point of this musical. With a story as detailed and meaningful as this, with changing characters and locations, losing out on the story is the last thing we would want.
However (and this is a very big however), if you’re like me and you have an itch for vocal flair and pizzazz, Jamecia Bennett’s voice is certain to scratch it. Bennett’s vocal performance in the role of Mother is not just flair and pizzazz. It’s emotive, powerful, drives the plot, and is perfectly aligned with who Mother is. At one point, Mother and the Narrator came together (“Is It Alright?”), jazzily and beautifully reminding me that the choices I made as a Black teenager/young adult, were simply choices. These choices and their resulting actions made me into who I am today, and it’s all okay. I was struck by this, and I was grateful to hear it. And I thought I’d be walking into this theatre to watch 20 people do a Pas de Bourrée & kick ball change with zero emotional strings attached.
Yellow Tree Theatre’s Passing Strange meant a lot to me. I believe it will mean a lot to people who have looked for ‘the Real’ before or might still be searching for it.
Passing Strange plays at Yellow Tree Theatre in Osseo, MN, through May 8, 2022.