Passing Strange is a rock-and-roll roller coaster about the ups and downs of a black male teenager in the absurd world of the 1980s. The ride passes through the sensational adventures of Youth as he escapes the picket fences of South Central, Los Angeles, in favor of the hostels of Amsterdam and Berlin. He is desperate to find "the real" and form a selfhood free of the constrictions of black Baptist and black middle-class pathologies.
As he follows the footprints of Josephine Baker and James Baldwin he befriends a band of Dutch and German anarchists, intellectuals, and pornographers (eccentrics who endorse the absence of law and order and the presence of love and peace all at once) and is eager to become a member of the collective. However, Youth questions the belief that individual happiness is the highest good when it becomes clear that the ostensible bohemia is artificial.
Singer and songwriter Stew, with collaborator and multi-instrumentalist Heidi Rodenwald, creates a sensorial experience that marries the je ne sais quoi of the American musical to the muscle of the post-soul black cultural product. Stew eschews the traditions of musical theater proper and produces characters that reflect the range of black identities in the United States and the larger world. His dialogue overflows with humor and pathos that rejuvenate and stir. His music enraptures. A few numbers are platitudes, but the triteness deflects attention from Stew and the onstage band, who act as narrator and chorus, to the handsome choreographies director Annie Dorsen and movement coordinator Karole Armitage use to steer the production.
The performances are phenomenal. Daniel Breaker as Youth captures the quirks of the teenager with perfection. He exudes moxie. Eisa Davis as Mother strikes the right balance between friend and foe. She endears Mother to the theatergoer with sentimental expression and gesture. The remarkable de'Adre Aziza, Colman Domingo, Chad Goodridge, and Rebecca Naomi Jones bring to life several persons with gradation and passion. Stew is a character.
Passing Strange is an unforgettable experience that entertains and jolts the theatergoer that takes its ride.
Passing Strange, the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Place, (212) 967-7555, through July 1, $20.