By Audre Neale
To be immersed in Signature Theatre’s Passing Strange is to plunge headfirst into rebellion. This rock ’n’ roll musical about the existential dread of an African American wannabe artist in search of “the real” will drag you through the birth of the ’80s kicking, screaming, and most definitely singing along. Part musical, part concert, this production pays homage to rock ’n’ roll’s relationship to rhythm and blues, its boldly diverse libretto infiltrating what is typically expected of musical theater. In his Signature Theatre debut, director Raymond O. Caldwell makes use of the intimate space boxing you in so that you are saturated with the provocatively stunning performances of a star-studded cast.
This multimedia production is exhilarating to experience, and you will find yourself indulging in the phrases and themes of the play marked in graffiti-like fashion all throughout the theater. I’m not sure what this show would be without its video design (Kelly Colburn), which comes alive as an essential part of the play, ringing true to the nature of the ’80s and the bodaciousness of rock ’n’ roll in its unabashed excess. Rich in symbolism and token memories that will take you back in time, it is a wonderful mediator between the rich material of the play and the audience. As a result the set design (Jonathan Dahm Robertson) is minimal yet crafty: an array of black storage trunks that transform into platforms, church pew seats, and even a car with headlights!
We are guided through this nothing-short-of-psychedelic experience by the Narrator played by Issac “Deacon Izzy” Bell, accompanied by the Band set up on stage consisting of Marika Countouris on keyboard, Alec Green on guitar, Jason Wilson on bass, and Angel Bethea on drums. The Band functions as an anchor holding down the fort as the Narrator drifts in and out of the world of the play. Bell is an extremely talented vocalist, and you’ll be surprised to find out that Passing Strange is his theatrical debut! The performers in the ensemble of this production earn their keep jumping distinctively into multiple roles and dialects as the Youth, our main character taken on by the phenomenally talented Deimoni Brewington, attempts his voyage into adulthood and out of the confines of his mother’s love. Played by Kara-Tameika Watkins, Mother is a well-meaning mom who tries to live life by a picturesque agenda, emulating all that the Youth finds excruciatingly “phony.” Middle-class and validated by the social politics of the church (not so much with the word of God), she drags Youth to service in “Baptist Fashion Show.” The Youth is unimpressed until he gets struck by the spirit in “Blues Revelation/Freight Train,” where he proclaims, “Mom, we’re all just a tribe of bluesy Africans and church ain’t nothin’ but rock ’n’ roll.” Mother slaps him back into his senses for embarrassing her with the blasphemous association, but this serves as the catalyst for his pursuit of “the real,” something he becomes convinced only rock ’n’ roll can grant him.
This is exacerbated when Youth forms an alliance with the outcasts of the youth choir led by the reverend’s queer son Mr. Franklin played by Tobias A. Young. Young’s Mr. Franklin is daringly hilarious, stealing the show for what is the calm before the storm in the musical number “Arlington Hill.” While hotboxing a car, he introduces Youth to weed and plants the idea of true freedom and realness that could be found by traveling to Europe, likening it to the many Black artists and activists between the eras of the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement who fled in an effort to escape the crippling racism and political injustice of America. Youth becomes obsessed with traveling to Europe and his selfish tyranny begins.
Throughout the play, he travels from Amsterdam to Berlin in a frenzy of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. Ensemble members Imani Branch, Alex De Bard, and Michael J. Mainwaring are all electrifyingly good as they navigate the different extremes of the multiple characters they play. Mainwaring takes on the most obnoxious characters in the play so well you love him in spite of it. De Bard is small but mighty and will be the source of plenty of laughs as well yet shines as Marianna, Youth’s sexually liberated and pure-intentioned love interest in Amsterdam. He leaves her when he realizes he’s been so content with her he can no longer write music in “Paradise/Stoned.” Convinced he needs conflict in order to make good music, he travels to Berlin where he meets Desi played by Branch. He takes on the poor-African-American-raised-in-the-ghetto trope in spite of his middle-class upbringing to convince his new anti-capitalist Berlin family that he has experienced enough trife to be a “real” artist. Branch stuns you in “Come Down Now” and brings an earnest and visceral quality to Desi, who calls Youth out on not being true to himself.
Ultimately Youth’s pursuit of the real causes him to dissociate from his environments and the connections he doesn’t realize he is fortunate enough to have. Passing Strange is a testament to the struggle that is being Black in America, hungry for community and healthy ways of expression yet stunted by an othering enforced by society and even sometimes self-imposed. Only through rebellion can a revolutionary find solace in their individuality, but it is always likely something or someone else in their lives will suffer the consequences. A love letter to the contributions African American music has made to culture and a show loaded with satire and humor, Signature Theatre’s Passing Strange is a worthwhile work that director Caldwell and cast should be more than proud of.
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes including one 15-minute intermission.
Passing Strange plays through June 18, 2023, in the ARK Theatre at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA. For tickets ($60–$100), call (703) 820-9771 or purchase online. Information about ticket discounts is available here.
The playbill for Passing Strange is online here.
Closed captions will be available for every show via the GalaPro app.
COVID Safety: Masks are always optional in the lobby and other public areas of the building. Face masks are required inside the performance spaces on Thursdays and Sundays. Face masks are optional inside the performance spaces Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Signature’s COVID Safety Measures can be found here.
Book & Lyrics by Stew
Music by Stew & Heidi Rodewald
Created in Collaboration with Annie Dorsen
Directed by Raymond O. Caldwell
Signature Theatre announces cast and creative team for ‘Passing Strange’ (news story, March 29, 2023)