(Originally published on MOLI 5/29/8)
Stew looks sardonically out at the audience in New York’s Belasco Theater from his vantage point at center stage. Sometimes, as he narrates the action of Passing Strange, the show he wrote with Heidi Rodewald, which just won two Obies and is nominated for seven Tonies, he sets his heavy black glasses on top of his head and pauses with lips pressed tight, emphasizing a particular absurdity â€“ of a character, the plot, the whole situation of being a longtime outsider artist finally let in. Itâ€™s a healthily skeptical narrative device that intellectually keeps this smart, funny play from becoming what it has actually become: a Broadway musical. â€œCan you believe it?â€ the gesture says. Well, yes.
Passing Strange, which moved from the Public Theatre to the Belasco February 8, is the story of that skeptical artiste as a young man. The Youth, played with just the right mix of wide-eyed gawkish disdain by Daniel Brecker, escapes the phony palm-tree-studded life of growing up black and middle class in LA by following his muse to Amsterdam and Berlin, where he falls in with hippies, anarchists, and performance artists. Stew thanks GW Bush for the showâ€™s inspiration. â€œWhen I found out that he had never been to Europe in his youth (or in his adulthood until he became prez!!!) I immediately knew I wanted to write a play about a kid who wanted to go to Europe,â€ he writes on the showâ€™s website. â€œThat fact about Bush said a lot to me about America’s lack of interest in anything foreign except that which it can exploit (always to exploit â€“ never to learn from).â€
In the show, Stew, who with Rodewald had a band called the Negro Project for a decade, is just as critical of Euro bohosâ€™ curious interest in and ignorance of his background as he is of American close-mindedness. In order not to get evicted as a pop capitalist pig, the Youth winds up playing the skin card, pretending to have been a kind of Crip to his communal flat-mates â€“ who lap up his gangsta art. â€œNo one in this play knows what itâ€™s like to sell a dime in South Central,â€ Stew drily states to the Belasco crowd, making fun of what must have been his own adolescent shuck and jive â€“ and raising a red flag for any minstrel tendencies in this current song and dance.
Years ago I recall seeing Stew busking in the Astor Place subway station; Iâ€™d like to say I recognized his Elvis Costelloish genius back then, but Iâ€™d be lying. Iâ€™m definitely rooting for him Tony night, June 15. Heâ€™s the lucky, worthy struggling artist who has finally hit the lottery â€“ bravo for his capitalist pop!
Passing Strange will perform Tuesdays at 7 p.m.; Wednesdays – Saturdays at 8 pm; Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2 p.m.; and Sundays at 3 p.m. at the Belasco Theatre (111 West 44th Street) on Broadway. Tickets are priced $111.50 – $66.50 – $36.50 – $26.50, and are available through Tele-charge at http://www.TeleCharge.com, or by calling 212-239-6200.
For additional information onPassing Strange, visit http://www.PassingStrangeOnBroadway.com.