Review: ‘Passing Strange’ at Shotgun Players (*****)

Oakland native Devin Cunningham is electrifying as “Youth” in Shotgun Players revival of “Passing Strange” by “Stew” (book/lyrics/music) and Heidi Rodewald (music). Photo Credit: Benjamin Krantz.

by Charles Kruger

Reviewed by a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

“Passing Strange” had its world premiere at Berkeley Rep, went on to the Public Theater in New York, thence to Broadway, and thence to a filmed version (by Spike Lee) at Sundance. And it picked up quite a few awards along the way: In 2008, it won a whopping four Tony awards for “best book of a musical,” “outstanding musical,” “outstanding lyrics,” and “outstanding music” and was nominated for a slew of others. There were multiple Drama Desk Awards as well. Its revival at Shotgun Players to inaugurate their 30th season is definitely a cause for celebration! This wonderful production leaves nothing to be desired. It rings every bell.

The title, “Passing Strange,” is inspired by Othello’s remarks about his courtship with Desdemona, but also refers to “passing” as either white or Black in America. The “Youth” who is the hero of the story is moved to experience many identities, passing through each−or perhaps experiencing each as an initiation into the next passage. All of these passings seem strange in a variety of ways, depending on who is looking or passing through.

Initially, he struggles with his identity as a middle class Black teenager in South Central Los Angeles. Should he be gangsta? What about his love for musicals? Can he tolerate the Black church? How to understand why his mother sometimes talks “Black” and sometimes doesn’t? But this Youth’s identity crisis is more than a matter of being Black or “Black enough.” He cannot and will not be limited in that way. He encounters a mentor in the person of the director of the youth Choir at his mother’s church (who happens to be the Pastor’s son). At his mother’s insistence, he agrees not-too-readily to look into joining the youth choir where he is soon initiated by the Pastor’s son into the joys of marijuana and philosophical discussion. Their talks cover not only Black identity issues like stories of the Harlem Renaissance and the essays of James Baldwin but also Dostoyevsky and Camus and Sartre and European culture and the challenges of being an artist. Have you ever before seen young Black men in contemporary drama talking over such a wide range of intellectual content that includes but is not limited to matters of racial identity? I haven’t. And I can tell you, it is a refreshing revelation. In “Passing Strange” the Black characters are allowed to be Black but also to blossom into additional possibilities which is “passing strange” indeed to observe. And wonderful.

As the Youth, Oakland native Devon Cunningham’s performance is best described as mind blowing. In portraying this young Black artist he reveals, bit by bit, a rainbow of identities and dreams and possibilities, transcending every imaginable stereotype and exploding with charismatic energy. In his conversations with Franklin, the youth choir director played by Shakur Tolliver, we enjoy acting at its highest manifestation. The relationship these two actors create is utterly convincing, original, and exciting to experience. They portray something I have never before seen on stage: the way a young man (not gay) can fall in love with a slightly older man who opens up for him a world of intellectual and artistic possibilities and dreams. Not to mention the joys of marijuana, which are not to be dismissed, as far as Franklin is concerned.

Inspired by these conversations, the Youth becomes convinced that he must go to Europe to find himself. He is going to escape the “tough streets” of South Central and fly to the Continent, conveniently forgetting that his spacious two story home in the Baldwin Hills is, perhaps, not quite as “tough” as he likes to imagine. In a wonderfully staged and comical scene, Cunningham is hilarious in an Amsterdam coffeehouse where he discovers hasish is on the menu. His astonished delight is a joy to behold. It is the sort of life experience that we rarely see portrayed by Black actors — and yet why not? The character remains Black, but the experiences he is allowed to explore in this wonderful production far transcend what is usually allowed to Black actors. Again: “passing strange.”

In a trajectory reminescent of Candide, the Youth goes on to explore a variety of what Europe has to offer. He falls in love in Amsterdam and then proceeds to the punk/art scene in Berlin where he joins an artist’s squat and falls in love again. An excellent company of actors portrays the various characters he encounters. Myles Brown is excellent in a series of small characterizations, as is Chanel Tilghman. Angel Adedokun is an enchanting love interest. It is notable that all of the characters are played by Black actors, although all the European characters are presumably white. Again: “Passing Strange.” As the most eccentric of the Europeans, an angry punk performance artist, Shakur Tolliver (who also plays the pastor’s son in South Central) is a hoot.

A particularly effective scene is when the Youth, eventually being rejected by the artist’s squat, decides to save his place by playing “the race card.” When they ask him what he has to offer as an artist that would earn him a place he responds, “I’m Black!” It is a moment of heart rendering honesty: in one sense he’s selling himself out, in another he’s coming to a realization of how essential being Black is to his identity; in another he’s realizing that to many being Black is his only currency as an artist: complicated issues, brilliantly and subtly explored. It is no wonder the book won a Tony! All of this is, indeed, “Passing Strange.”

As a singing narrator, Albert Hodge is a marvelous MC and Rolanda D. Bell, as the Youth’s adoring and patient mother, is very moving. The band, directed by keyboardist Daniel Alley, is much more than serviceable, as are the details of design in every category. Credit Romello Huins for the scaffold type set, Starr Jian for many interesting props, Stephanie Anne Johnson for the lighting, and Jamine Milan Williams for the costumes.

So what is the message about identity that “Passing Strange” seek to convey? In a program note, director William Hodgeson says it best:

“Tonight, we’re transcending the boundaries of identity.  . . . Have you come in search of Le Real. . . Welcome, pilgrim . . . listen close. Only love is real.”


“Passing Strange” plays at Shotgun Players through April 10, 2022. For further information and tickets, click here.


Rating: ***** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
____________________________

“Passing Strange” produced by Shotgun Players. Book/Lyrics by Stew. Music by Stew & Heidi Rodewald. Created in collaboration with Annie Dorsen. Director: William Hodgson. Music Direction: Daniel Alley. Scenic Designer: Romello Huins. Lighting Designer: Stephanie Johnson. Costume Designer: Jasmine Milan Williams.  Properties Designer: Starr Jiang. Intimacy Choreographer: Jeunée Simon

Cast:

Sherry/Mariana/Sudabey: Angel Adedokun. Mother: Rolanda D. Bell. Hugo/Christopher/Terry: Myles Brown. Devin Cunningham: Youth. Albert Hodge: Narrator. Edwina/Renata/Desi: Chanel Tilghman. Franklin/Joop/Venus: Shakur Tolliver.

Musicians:

Music Director/Keyboard: Daniel Alley. Drums: Vincent de Jesus. Guitar: Bennett Hull. Bass: Mr. Michael ‘Tiny’ Lindsey.   

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