Karamu’s brilliant ‘Passing Strange’ testifies about the power of art, love
By Bob Abelman
There is certainly no shortage of coming-of-age memory plays, where an older character sentimentally reflects back on the trials and tribulations of his younger self. But few are delivered through music and verse and fewer still are as intriguing, engaging and brilliantly performed as Karamu’s production of “Passing Strange.”
More punk rock performance art than traditional drama, the play features a fellow in his 40s, known only as Narrator (a soulful and wonderfully accessible Darius J. Stubbs), who is looking back at the choices he made as a budding artist in his 20s, known only as Youth (an infectiously likable and passionate Justin C. Woody). Youth is trying to find his voice as a songwriter as well as a comfort level with his blackness.
The 2008 Tony Award-winning musical is an autobiographical fiction written by rock ’n’ roller Stew and his bandmate Heidi Rodewald, who hail from the L.A. indie music subculture of the 1980s, which is when “Passing Strange” largely takes place.
Every album created by their band, called Stew and the Negro Problem, is known to reflect a vast artistic vocabulary and create a carefully crafted universe unto itself. The same holds true for “Passing Strange.” The show is a joyful testament to the power of music though you’ll hardly walk away from the theater humming a tune from a highly eclectic song list where the inclusion of rock, punk, funk and gospel somehow makes perfect sense.
Each song is supported by an outstanding on-stage band consisting of Ed Ridley, Jr. on keyboard, Elijah Gilmore on drums, Kevin Byous on guitar, Bradford L. McGhee on bass, and vocalist Chantrell Lewis sharing the harmonies.
The world of this play interweaves song, verse and dialogue and allows for four exceptionally talented cast members (Carlos Antonio Cruz, Joshua McElroy, Mary-Francis Miller and CorLesia Smith) to play three highly diverse characters each, one in each city visited during Youth’s journey of self-discovery.
His journey begins in the middle-class L.A. home that Youth shares with his protective, church-going mother (the magnificent Treva Offutt), which is so buffered from tough neighborhoods like Compton and Westmont that a popular girl (Miller) he meets when thinking about joining the church’s youth choir will only date him if he stops passing for white and blackens up a little.
Finding nothing to inspire his art at home or in church, Youth leaves for Amsterdam where he discovers drugs, sex with Marianna (Miller) and a loving family with Joop (Cruz), Renata (Smith) and Christophe (McElroy).
But with no friction to stimulate his creativity, he moves to still-Communist Berlin and comes across a rebellious performance art scene populated with the aggressive Sudebey (Miller) and Hugo (McElroy) and led by the outrageously anarchist Mr. Venus (Cruz). There, Youth falls in love with Desi (Smith) and ups his angry “negritude” by passing for ghetto to gain the favor of the radical arts community he has embraced.
His mother’s passing ends his journey and the play, leaving Narrator to reflect on his life-long battle with reality and share with the audience what he and Youth have learned from it: “Life is a mess that only art can fix.”
This show is physically demanding and emotionally exhausting for these seven players. They not only lean into each and every song to mine their gorgeous harmonies, share the meaning in their poignant lyrics and wail when required – which is often – but they do so while performing Kenya R. Woods’ high-energy and wonderfully engaging choreography and never leaving the captivating characters they have created.
All this takes place on a two-tier stage void of storytelling trappings, which leaves the performances and Rob Peck’s lighting and sound design to fend for themselves.
Audiences will surely marvel at the hard work put in by director Nathan A Lilly to make it all look so easy.
“Passing Strange” performed by Karamu
WHERE: Arena Theatre, 2355 E. 89th St., Cleveland
WHEN: Through June 3
TICKETS & INFO: $15-$37, Call 216-795-7077 or visit karamuhouse.org
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 AP Ohio Media Editors best columnist.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on May 19, 2018.
Lead image: Darius J. Stubbs (from left), Justin C. Woody and Treva Offutt. Photo / Michelle Berki