Passing Strange: portrait of the young artist in search of himself

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Vanessa Sears, David Lopez, Divine Brown, Jahlen Barnes, Peter Fernandes, Sabryn Rock, Beau Dixon. Racheal McCaig Photography

This week, Passing Strange debuted in Canada, in a low-key fashion reminiscent of its premiere on Broadway in 2008.

Since that quiet debut, of course, it has made a significant amount of “noise,” and not the least because it is a rock-and-roll musical that cannily defies categories. Is Passing Strange a musical that showcases a sophisticated libretto while telling the coming-of-age story of a musician name Youth?  Or is it a live concert that tells a story, where Narrator interacts with the actors, helping to advance the plot  . . . all while performing with the band on stage?

Well…yes and yes. It is all of these things, a unique hybrid that has captured popular attention and critical acclaim. During its Broadway run, it was nominated for 7 Tony awards –  and won Best Book of a Musical by writer-composer Stew (the first African-American to do so) – as well as 3 Drama Desk Awards, a New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and 2 Obie Awards.

Jahlen Barnes, Beau Dixon, Divine Brown. Racheal McCaig Photography

The show’s anomalous approach to the themes of self-discovery, religion, identity, hedonism, culture and class has resonated strongly with American audiences, and its eventual arrival in Canada has been eagerly anticipated. The Toronto production, co-produced by the Acting Up Stage Company and Obsidian Theatre Company, is currently onstage at The Opera House. It features an all-Canadian cast and creative team. Toronto actor Jahlen Barnes plays the role of Youth in the Toronto production and sees aspects of himself in the character: “Youth is so much like me because I completely understand how it feels to be ready to charge out of the barn and face the world”. Yet the two differ greatly “when it comes to performance art.” Barnes explains that Youth is a great character, and he feels “honoured” to able to tell his story. The process of portraying Youth has brought home to him the importance of family, and “that nothing lasts forever.”

As Barnes notes, the plot of Passing Strange explores the notion of “passing” through various themes: the inevitability of time passing, and things coming to their natural close. In the pursuit of his art, Youth passes from one place to another, from Los Angeles to Amsterdam to Berlin. The show also plays on – and reverses – the idea of a black person trying to pass as white. In an ironic twist, Youth tries impress the Europeans he encounters by taking on the very stereotype of an urban black youth that he avoided in his native Los Angeles, as a way to downplay his middle-class upbringing. The show’s title, from a speech by Othello, echoes Youth’s struggles to pinpoint his “real” culture and identity within conflicting values and perceptions. “This play really talks about the black experience and how my own culture views itself,” muses Barnes. “It’s just a great introduction into what it is that we fought for and where we came from.”

Peter Fernandes, Jahlen Barnes, Sabryn Rock. Racheal McCaig Photography

And then there is the music. The story is semi-autobiographical, written by Stew (née indie rocker Mark Stewart) and his bandmate Heidi Rodewald. In keeping with the musical style of their band The Negro Problem, Passing Strange eschews the typical musical-theatre-style standards. Instead, its songs draw on the musical genres which reflect the episodic plot – gospel, punk and rock – styles that Youth would naturally experience during his picaresque journey through the world and his art in his quest for “the Real.”

Does Barnes’ Youth ultimately attain “the Real”? Toronto audiences will finally see for themselves. For now, it’s enough to say that the opportunity to see Passing Strange shouldn’t be, well, passed up. In addition to the compelling story and clever dialogue (it’s an incredibly funny show) Barnes suspects that the “awesome” music will linger in the audience’s consciousness. “What I hope people talk about in the car ride home is how awesome the music is and that they enjoyed the show,” he says, noting that his personal favourite is the show’s closing song “Love Like That” performed by Narrator (played by Beau Dixon) He adds, “as long as they’re talking about (the show), I’m happy.” He enthusiastically endorses the show as “great for everyone….Except small children.” Youngsters will just have to wait a few years until Passing Strange next passes through Toronto.

Divine Brown, Sabryn Rock, Peter Fernandes, Beau Dixon, Vanessa Sears, David Lopez, Jahlen Barnes. Racheal McCaig Photography

News You Can Use

What: Passing Strange

  • Book and Lyrics by Stew; Music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald; Created in collaboration with Annie Dorsen
  • Starring Jahlen Barnes, Divine Brown, Beau Dixon, Peter Fernandes, David Lopez, Sabryn Rock, Vanessa Sears
  • Directed by Phillip Akin; Musical Direction by Bob Foster; Choreography by Kimberley Rampersad

Who: Special all-ages performance on January 29, 2017; all other performances for audiences 19 years and older

When: Onstage until February 5, 2017

Where: The Opera House, 735 Queen Street East, Toronto, ON M4M 1H2

Information and Tickets: Acting Up Stage Company and Obsidian Theatre Company 

© 2017 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya

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