October 11, 2009

Passing Strange (The Musical / Film)

Passing Strange
A movie by Spike Lee documenting Passing Strange, a Broadway musical with lyrics and book by Stew and music and orchestrations by Stew and Heidi Rodewald.

Before my brief comments on this concert/play/movie, here’s the synopsis from wiki:
“A young black musician travels on a picaresque journey to rebel against his mother and his upbringing in a church-going, middle-class, late 1970s South Central Los Angeles neighborhood in order to find "the real". He finds new experiences in promiscuous Amsterdam, with its easy access to drugs and sex, and in artistic, chaotic, political Berlin, where he struggles with ethics and integrity when he misrepresents his background as (ghetto) poor to get ahead. Along with his "passing" from place to place and from lover to lover, the young musician moves through a number of musical styles from a background of gospel to punk, and then blues, jazz, and rock. He finally returns home.”

This is a fab film that really loves the theatre it archives forever. I laughed a lot and was just wowed by so much of the writing. I was also impressed by the staging of drugs, anti-capitalist politics and performance art, that even when sarcastic and demeaning (typical framing in mainstream or big budget contexts), was also playfully right on and potentially subversive. The many references to Passing were super bright, insightful, playful, and satisfying. Energetically, the film suggests a performance that really moved its audience. Lee’s gorgeous close-ups provoke visceral and emotional response. The dramaturgy of energy, of rising and calming vibrant presences, might actually be the strongest element in this production.

I'm kinda surprised that Passing Strange was never on my radar - not that I ever track Broadway (or even Berkeley Rep where it was developed) but I usually know about performances of any kind that are so full of issues I care about. But maybe because the project itself passes strangely. It passes as different or experimental with regards to Broadway but then seems to recuperate Broadway’s ideological standards of promoting universals and (white) social norms. I say passes strangely because it is never quite what it says it is. It’s complicated. Which might be related to saying, it’s a Black middle-class thing, a performance of multiplicity, paradox and shifting position.

When the writing is not sharp and wonderful, it's too cliché and dumbed-down. Stew, the writer/narrator/star, knows all the reasons not to reproduce a sucky Broadway show and then he tries to do it. I mean sure it’s a personal narrative and maybe it’s even a True Story. But does a play smart enough to acknowledge feminism have to make every shift in a boy’s life be dependent on mom or girlfriend?

Did the writers and producers think that the only way to stage a non-Broadway song on Broadway is by quotation? The influences of punk, funk, minimalism, and performance art have been integrated into mass media and Broadway performance for years. In Passing Strange, the default is show tune ballad. Only when part of a play within play, the punks in Berlin for example, can we experience ‘alternative’ musical stylings. This default setting wouldn’t bother me so much if it was just aesthetic, but it is also ideological. Not just one drug scene, but pot, acid and speed are all instrumental to his artistic/political formation. But shit, is all the countercultural experimentation simply a distraction from the reals (ideals?) of family, christmas, and musical theatre? This default to normative family somehow can’t recognize that the ways we construct family are central to the lead character’s struggles with identity and authenticity, with finding what’s real. What's next - a thanksgiving musical where a gaggle of freaks gather to un-ironically feast on turkey with a 'medicine day' chaser? (Sorry if that reference is opaque. There are 100 people who know exactly what I’m talking about.) Anyway, help me out as I stumble in this slippage between hi and low, downtown and midtown, rich and poor theatre. I feel duped.

I would like, at least once in my life to have one of my own performances documented so well.

Duped means deceived and the word originates form 17th cent dialect French about some bird whose appearance was supposedly stupid.