...that, was all I really knew about this play/musical going in, aside from the fact that my friend, LeRoy Bell, was starring in the production. I did some digging around, just a tad, to see what "Passing Strange" was more about, and learned it was a "coming of age" story -- coming of age? Ummm LeRoy is *ehem* years old, hardly coming of age! Something about a young, black rock musician trying to find his identity in a time when people assumed he would/should be different. From the ACT Theatre's page, "Passing Strange" is summed up by saying, "this award-winning Broadway hit is finally taking the Seattle stage. Passing Strange is a young black musician’s odyssey of self-discovery, complete with sex, drugs, and above all, rock-and-roll. It’s a musical, but don’t expect show tunes or sequins. Instead, this gritty, heartfelt show will shake the house—and your conceptions of manhood, race, and identity."
Rewind a few years...
Maria & I met LeRoy back in Summer '10, have followed him pretty steadily since, and have even gotten to know him on a "hey, how's it going?" level of friendship. We watched him try out & reach Top 8 on Season 1 of "The X Factor," caught many concerts, and this past New Year's Eve we brought in 2014 at a show he did with His Only Friends at the Kirkland Performance Center. So...when Maria happened upon a post on Facebook about LeRoy starring in a musical, well...we had to check it out!
So, that brings us to now.
What can I say about "Passing Strange" that hasn't been covered in local media? I'm not sure, I didn't read much press prior to writing this -- I want this to be mine, not a rehash of other writers' opinions.
LeRoy heads a stellar cast, and is joined musically by an incredible band (it would have been cool to see His Only Friends backing him up, but...). After an opening number to set the tempo ("We Might Play All Night'), LeRoy, known in this production as Narrator (altho he does much more than simply speak), sets the scene, and we are introduced to Mother (Marlette Buchanan) and Youth (Andrew Lee Creech) -- now, I had read that this story is a musical embellishment of the life of the writer, Stew, but the names of Mother, Youth (young Stew) & Narrator (old...er Stew) were probably left out for effect, depicting who they were, but not identifying them -- ahh....that stinking "identity" thing mentioned above, gotcha. Ok! Back to the opening scene.
I will note here that I love the props -- or lack of. This is a gritty rock musical, nothing flashy. The cast uses minimal accessories (sunglasses, scarves, etc) and the staging is open, mind for music cases (those bulky ones with metal corners, meant for hauling gear...my music friends know what I'm talking about). It is upon the larger case that our story's hero, Youth, is lying on as a bed...when all of a sudden, Mother comes in all cheery, urging him to get hit butt out of bed and ready for church. Youth doesn't want to go, he wants to just chill at home (like many youth, I'm sure). The conversation between Mother and Youth is flavored by Narrator's commentary, such as what tone Mother is using (her normal, cheerful Sunday Morning voice, or her negro voice -- don't shoot the messenger, that's the term they used!). So, here we are, in the front row, a couple white folk, snickering...and I have the thought..."Should I be laughing at the commentary?"
Youth observes church, or should I say, "chur-cha"? How Mother parades around with others, talking about how nice each other looks, and oooo look at them shoes! Hence the number, "Baptist Fashion Show." The whole church scene reminds me of a line from the tune "Mission" by King's X:
Who are these people behind the stained glass windows?
Have they forgotten just what they came here for?
Was it salvation or scared of hell
Or an assembly of a social get-together?
The church gets rolling, with that good ol' gospel beat from your typical Southern Baptist Church setting, stomping, whooping, tearing it up, people getting caught up in the religiousity of churchianity. That's right, I said it, the religiousity of church-ianity. Do you feel me, brothers? I can see how this scene can be viewed as a mockery of church-going folk, and perhaps it is, but it shouldn't take away from people's faith. People are viewed by what can be seen, more rather than what is inside...but what I saw in this scene was churchianity, not gospel-sewn Christianity, and Youth had a "religious experience" -- something that church had never seen before, according to Narrator.
Youth is scolded, then, by Mother, for he embarrasses her in front of the brethren, but is soon whisked into the choir, and meeting a beautiful "Christian" woman (Yesenia Iglesias), who has a list of demands for him if he wants to be her husband ("Yes, brown sugar!" -- by this time, concern about laughing at black-folk humor by black folk was long gone, I was keyed into the storyline completely)...They didn't make it to the altar, and Youth pursued his musical dreams. Youth is mentored by Mr. Franklin, (J Reese), the choir director/gay son of the preacher man, who encouraged to explore the world in search for his song, guided by the spirituality of...marijuana. And sex. And drugs. And that he should go to Amsterdam, where all he ever dreamed of was, and he could be who he really was -- instead of being a black man pretending to be a black man in late 1970s Los Angeles.
Against the wishes of Mother, Youth tells her he must follow his dreams -- all done in a mock-Noir fashion, which was funny, classy, cool, all the above.
Amsterdam is all he ever dreamed of, heaven on earth (so to speak), where a woman invites him in, offering him her keys...to stay as long as he wants. Pleasures of the flesh abound, one woman, two? (Yesenia Iglesias, again, and Shontina Vernon) ...but his Youth's creativity is stunted, for as a punk-rocker, he had no angst in Amsterdam. Our hero is then urged by his friends to go to Berlin, where there are riots, and anger, and the streets are mean...and so, he goes!
Berlin offers Youth many new ways to vent his angst, to include performance art...something about how his identity has sex with his ego and called their illegitimate child "Art"...words to that effect. J Reese, in the roll of Mr. Venus, steals the scene himself, shouting (repeatedly, in a German accent), "Vut's inside iz just a lie!) mere feet away from our faces! (In a nutshell, what the media and world has put into our heads about who we are and what we are to be is just a lie and we should rid ourselves of what is not real).
Christmas approaches, and Youth's friends, much to his shock, tell him they are all going home to visit, leaving him to himself. A long-distance call from Mother is met with hesitation, and not wanting to really talk about anything in general. Mother insists that he come home so they can "talk" ("But we're talking now!" "No son, we need to talk..." along those lines, something that needs to be discussed in person)...Youth never makes it home...well, he does, eventually, but regrets waiting.
Narrator and Youth share a dialog, one where they talk about Mother...You see, Mother was so wrapped up in the ways of churchianity, that she never let herself be...herself. She never wore the outrageous dress that she always wanted to, and sing the way she desired...and she put her lack of pursuit onto her son, not wanting him to be who he truly was. But now, in Youth's regret, sorrow, mournfulness, he decided to let Mother be who she wanted to be, every day, in his song; to remember her how she would have wanted to remember.
"Passing Strange" is heart-warming, full of grit, humor, a life's truths...and lies. It's about growing up, following your dream -- and wondering, as you grow older, if following the dream of a teenager is really what you should be doing. It brought many ponderings to my own mind and heart, looking back upon my dreams as a musician, artist, and finding the one I truly need to spend my life with (which I did, in a twist of fate: my 5th grade girlfriend from 1978 is now my forever girlfriend many years later)...The church scene did not offend me, even tho I am a man of faith -- I, too, am tired of the show part of churchianity, the subculture, the way it seems we need to be, act, and say the right things, for fear of what others (not God, others) might think. I never took drugs, nor lived a heathenish lifestyle, but I did follow the story and its message. Quite simply, "Passing Strange" blew my mind. Incredible.
Afterwards, Maria asked LeRoy if he's interested in doing more theater, to which he responded with a quite hesitant, "...I don't know..." -- he did great, by the way, the role suited him well, and he was able to bring out that gorgeous gold Les Paul of his and jam during the show.
The cast, for the most part, had multiple roles, many of which I did not focus on here. Rounding out the cast are DeSean Halley, band leader/keyboardist Jose Gonzales, guitarist Kathy Moore, drummer Matt Jorgensen, and bassist Nate Omdal. The director was Tyone Brown. Nicely done, everyone!
A few dates left!
Info and tickets: http://www.acttheatre.org/Tickets/OnStage/PassingStrange
Age Recommendation: 14 and older for sexual references, strong language, and adult themes.
ACT Theatre's policy is to inform audiences of content, but to let parents, guardians, and teachers make decisions that they feel is most appropriate for youth and teens in their care.
LeRoy Bell's website, LeRoyBell.com