“Do you play jazz? Do you play blues?”
“Do you live in a windmill? Do you wear wooden shoes?”
The European adventures of a black rock musician (based on his own experiences by singer-guitarist, now playwright Stew) cut loose from family, friends and church in L.A., but still in thrall to his self-image and the images others have of him, are acted out by a brilliant cast, as Stew himself sings, strums and talks it through in rhyme, with a stellar quartet backing him up: such is Passing Strange, now playing at Berkeley Rep’s Thrust Stage, on its way to New York’s Public Theater.
Stew travels from an epiphany in church, where his mother drags him, but an epiphany about music; from joining the choir at the urging of a cute girl who’s heretofore ignored him, then being turned on and exhorted by the hip choirmaster to follow “St. Jimmy Baldwin” overseas; from a “one chord in unison” punk band, The Scare-O-Types, to writing his own songs, to a chorus of crackerbarrel incomprehension and gratuitous advice from his elder relations.
The Youth (Daniel Breaker), Stew’s younger self, takes off to the Old World, finding himself a Black American curiosity in early ‘80s Amsterdam and Berlin, where he’s spontaneously put up, offered love and companionship, encouraged in his creativity and exposed to a new aesthetic and its verbiage, grilled about his politics.
And he finds himself faking it, as all the while, The Mother (Berkeley native, sweet-voiced Eisa Davis) whose unconditional, but uncomprehending, love he brushed aside, waits for his return in an empty house.
Interviewed by Rep dramaturg Madeleine Oldham, Stew denied the urge to write a play, much less a “rockin’ Broadway musical,” aspiring instead to stage “something that took the electricity of a rock show and merged it with the rock and roll potential that exists within theater.”
There’s a rambling, wayward sense of that when the show opens, the electricity passing over from Stew and the band to the dynamic ensemble of players (de’Adre Aziza, Colman Domingo, Chad Goodridge and Rebecca Naomi Jones, as well as Breaker and Davis). Then the relentlessly linear, autobiographical plot begins to attain critical mass, over and over, as Stew deftly turns the tables, exposing The Youth’s self-absorption, as the caricatures he encounters turn out real folks, telling him, “I don’t want to be a song!”. And our young man abroad is caught clutching the bag of his own potential creativity, wanting recognition, but only on his own terms.
It’s unusual for rock to be critical of youth (and youth culture), though there’s a kind of L.A. tradition that puts up the glitz and fractures it, from Frank Zappa and Randy Newman on ... and Stew acknowledges Gore Vidal, who’s scored “the self-pity of the young,” as icon (along with Bob Dylan, the later Coltrane, Bach, the Wagner of “The Ring,” Delta bluesman Charlie Patton, The Fall, Edward Albee and T. S. Eliot).
But it’s a long show, though the cast puts over the unravelling string of routines nicely, with good staging by Annie Dorson, and choreography by Karole Armitage, as well as a set by David Korins that throbs with neon when in Europe, yet glimmers mutedly behind a dark, gauzy scrim in LA.
Other rock ventures into narrative and drama have preserved the intensity while articulating a tale; The Who’s Qaudrophenia comes to mind, both “rock opera” and movie, thwarting the heaviness of autobio by projecting the story onto a disaffected fan who belonged to the defunct scene the group rocketed out of to success. Instead of an episodic odysssey, The Who focused on an episode, a vicarious daytrip and nervous breakdown, allowing for plenty of reflection and reminiscence, the backstory sliding into the intensity of the moment—rock’s hallmark.
There’s good playing by the band (Jon Spurney, Marc Doten, Russ Kleiner and Heidi Rodewald, Stew’s collaborator since their band, The Negro Problem), and a few memorable songs, like “Come Down Now” and “Love Like That,” sounding a little like Joanie Mitchell or other songwriters coming out of Folk. Stew has a strong presence, thoughtfulness as well as glib wit, and more than one arrow in his quiver—or bowstring to his guitar.
But the bulging grab-bag of concert, cabaret, comedy sketch and disparate other schtick, from Sammy Davis to Hip-Hop, tends to exhaust rather than refresh the material, leaving it to the excellence of the cast to sell it. That material too often approaches cliche, if only to burlesque it. More interesting might have been something from one of Stew’s interview reminiscences, like the blue collar friends of his father, who would “suddenly, after the third beer, recite Poe or Eliot, word for word.”
A critic from one of the dailies remarked afterwards that Passing Strange was like that original modern play, Peer Gynt, at least in its message: the hero travels the world and experiences everything, only to find it’s the relationships he left back home that are real. Or maybe Henry James’ tale, “The Beast In The Jungle.”
However well the problem of getting it across is or isn’t realized, Passing Strange is an attractive show that gains strength towards its bittersweet conclusion, leaving something like the hint of a melody out of unresolved chords. It’ll be interesting to see where Stew & co. take the notion of staging their music from here.
at Berkeley Rep’s Thrust Stage
2025 Addison St.
Through Dec. 3