How far do you have to go to find yourself? That's the central question in the musician Stew's first full-length musical, Passing Strange, an often-brilliant, sometimes labored coming-of-age tale that extols the virtues of love, political theory, and a righteous bass line. Anchored by four musicians set around the stage in separate pits and Stew's own brimming goodwill, six actors tell the story of Youth, a kid from Los Angeles who goes in search of "the real" in churches, hash bars, and European squats. Careening from a Baptist church to Amsterdam and Berlin, this is a travelogue of both exterior and interior journeys.
Stew deftly suggests the idea of Europe as the black artist's promised land, where African-American writers, musicians, and performers have traditionally been admired and feted. But the flip side of that equation is here, too, in the way that black Americans from Baker to Baldwin are exoticized. Youth finds he gains prestige with his Berliner hosts by becoming the artist "Mr. Middle Passage" and sharing the violently lurid details of a made-up history.
This is a fantastic, agile cast, and Colman Domingo who decamped for a while to New York is back stronger, subtler, and more fluid. As Franklin, as Venus, as a nameless old relative, he's sublime, as are the depictions of places, especially pre-reunification Berlin, with one filmmaker earnestly explaining to Youth that her porn films "feature fully dressed men making business deals."
Fresh and moving, Passing Strange could stand tightening, especially in the second act where the rock-opera virus gets a vise grip on the songs, but there's still a lot of wonderful stuff to discover.
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