“In The Heights,” Miranda’s previous musical, opened on Broadway at the Richard Rogers Theater on March 9, 2008, less than two weeks after “Passing Strange” made its Broadway debut at the Belasco Theater. With its fusion of hip-hop and salsa, “In the Heights” helped expand the conception of what a Broadway musical could look like. And it created space for Miranda’s reading of history in “Hamilton,” in which actors of color play white Founding Fathers and rap battles prove to be the perfect idiom for the intellectual debates that defined the early years of the republic.
And “Passing Strange” did something else entirely: Even eight years after its premiere, it feels like a musical sent from the future to challenge the expectations for what a black Broadway show might be like. I’m still not sure anything anywhere in pop culture quite feels it has caught up to “Passing Strange.”
“Passing Strange” follows the adventures of the Youth (Daniel Breaker) as he moves from his mother’s (Eisa Davis) house and a youth choir at her Baptist church in Los Angeles, to the art scenes in Amsterdam and Berlin, and finally home again for his mother’s funeral. The core cast members — Colman Domingo, De’Adre Aziza, Rebecca Naomi Jones and Chad Goodridge — play different roles in each setting, playing both. And Stew (playing the narrator as an older version of the Youth), Rodewald and other members of their band are on stage throughout the show, popping in and out to argue with the cast about everything from the politics of punk to the meaning of “authenticity.”
It’s a raucous show, and a very, very funny one, careening from church music, to faux-hardcore — the Youth briefly plays in a band with the utterly fabulous name of the Scaryotypes — to German industrial music, rock and achingly tender ballads. And at every step of his journey, the Youth’s attempts to reckon with his blackness and his struggle for artistic integrity are bound up in each other.
In Los Angeles, the Youth’s choir director, Franklin Jones (Domingo) turns him onto weed and the dreams of James Baldwin’s Europe, sympathizing with the Youth’s sense that he’s out of place in middle-class black Los Angeles. “We’re passing, like your high yellow grandmother back in the day, only we’re passing for black folks,” Jones, who is gay but closeted, muses to the Youth.
In Amsterdam, the Youth is offended by the idea that his music ought to be defined by his blackness. “Do you play jazz? Do you play the blues?” asks one eager regular at the cafe where the Youth lands after he steps off the plane. “Do you live in a windmill?” he snaps back.
But in Berlin, where artists and philosophers venerate what they imagine to be the Youth’s experiences of the worst brutalities of American racism, the Youth embroiders his past and hides his placid upbringing to forge a career as a performance artist. “I envy you so much. I want to be reincarcerated as a black man,” one German performance artist (Aziza) sighs admiringly, in a malapropism that says everything. That schtick, inevitably, begins to feel dissonant, too: “All I have is my pain,” Stew acknowledges. “Sharp and way out of tune.”
“Passing Strange” doesn’t end with clear-cut, comforting conclusions about what constitutes authenticity, in art or in life. “The real is a construct / It’s the raw nerve’s private zone,” Stew sings in “Love Like That,” the song that concludes the show. “It’s a personal sunset / You drive off into alone.”
If what I’m describing sounds meta, a successful, coherent Broadway musical that also functions as a two-hour long critical treatise, you’re correct. “Passing Strange” ran for 165 performances, and for all I adore it, that sounds about right; the show lives on in Spike Lee’s film of the stage performance (when I saw “Passing Srtange” on Broadway, I hung around after the finale long enough to see Lee wander out on the stage to confer with his crew). But with Stew and Rodewald returning to the Public Theater with a new show, “The Total Bent,” in May, it’s high time “Hamilton”-lovers and anyone else who cares about weird, smart, highly personal art rediscover “Passing Strange.”