One of the posters for Passing Strange

This semester’s production of Passing Strange is a joint effort between BTE (Columbia University’s Black Theatre Ensemble) and CMTS (The Columbia Musical Theatre Society). Never ones to miss a good show, we sent musical-theatre maven Julia Goodman to review. For those interested in seeing the show for themselves, the last performance is tonight at 8pm; arrive by 7:30 to get a good spot on the wait list.

The sparseness of the Glicker-Milstein blackbox was well suited to Passing Strange, a show that explores which parts of art and life are real, and which are only the trappings of social expectations. The only set piece that called attention to itself was a wall of collaged record pieces, which served as a backdrop to the live band that remained onstage throughout the show. It hazily reflected bits of light around the audience, ensuring that we were never fully in darkness. The open stage allowed lighting designer Ruth Hollander (GS/JTS ’17) to experiment strikingly with light and shadow, placing characters in a semi-darkness that mirrored their internal murky feelings towards their own identities.

Passing Strange opens on a boy, the unnamed Youth (Julian Wright, CC ’17) and his mother (Dylan Jones, CC ’16), living in South Central Los Angeles. The mother tells the Youth to get up so that they can go to church, impressing upon him that this is both the path to salvation and an important social obligation. The narrator (Cameron-Mitchell Ware) encourages the audience to notice how she switches between dialects, using a passionate slang when exhorting her son to go to church, but dropping it for the clipped tones of Standard White English when she comments on what a beautiful day it is.

The Youth is unimpressed with church, finding only the gospel music there to be worthwhile. He soon joins the gospel choir, largely due to the fact that a “teenage goddess” named Edwina Williams is a member. It is no coincidence that the ensemble member who plays the reverend at the church (Saringi Agata, SEAS ’16) also plays Edwina, who describes herself as “airbrushed by the Almighty.” However, since she insists that the Youth “blacken up” before they can get together (“Not so much that you become unhirable or anything”), he doesn’t end up dating her.

All of the ensemble members played multiple roles, not limited by gender. For example, Sarah Ried (CC ’17), played Mr. Franklin, the preacher’s son who directs the gospel choir. Mr. Franklin tells the Youth that he should go to Europe to really experience freedom, especially where drug use is concerned. “You’ve got to go to another country if you want to get to Giovanni’s Room,” he points out, in reference to James Baldwin’s travels to Paris. This plants the seed in the Youth’s mind that he has to leave his boring middle-class neighborhood in Los Angeles if he really wants to rebel and be himself. Soon, he is off on a journey to Amsterdam and Berlin, where he experiences the sexual and artistic freedom of the “European way.”

Cameron-Mitchell Ware carried the show, moving easily between spoken-word, singing, and casually speaking to the audience. Some of the voices in the ensemble, such as that of Saringi Agata (SEAS ’16) and Jenny Singer (BC ’15) were also incredibly strong. Their powerful, controlled voices made the short moments of full-blown Broadway musical belting feel like a natural part of the otherwise rock-music-based show. Julian Wright provided a solid base of young adult angst, and some of the funniest moments in the show came from quirkier and more dramatic ensemble parts that played off of that serious search for identity. Jonah Weinstein (CC ’16), for example, was hilarious as Mr. Venus, a performance artist from Berlin who wears tiny leather shorts and wails, “What’s inside is just a lie!”

The bandleader, Annie Guo (CC ’17), and the other band members did a great job, especially considering that they had to interact with the actors and occasionally give up their instruments for different scenes. The pacing of the show felt a bit off at times; perhaps because it was driven by music, there were times when nothing was happening onstage except a lone bassist (Tareq Abuissa, CC ’14) plucking out some notes while a set piece was moved or two actors mimed a conversation. This was especially awkward in a scene between the Youth and his new German girlfriend Desi, in which they alternated between actual dialogue and moments of silently mimed conversation, which could be easily confused for awkward pauses or a forgotten line.

In contrast, the moments where there was action onstage but no music were used to great effect, either for comedy or drama. At the end of a song about the sexual freedom in Amsterdam (“We just had sex / That’s right all three of us,” sing the Youth’s new housemates), the Youth interrupts jubilantly, “I love that they’re so nonchalant / About the only thing I want!” The ensuing silence while his two female partners look askance at him was filled by audience laughter. At the other end of the spectrum, when the Youth asks his mother if it’s okay that he won’t be home for Christmas, her only response is to hang up the phone, and the audience held its breath with the Youth, waiting for an answer that will never come.

The Narrator does not hesitate to tell the audience that “we don’t know how to write those kinds of tunes” usually found in Broadway musicals. Though most musical theatre involves an exploration of identity, it is rare to see it done so explicitly and so thoughtfully. The lessons here do not come from show-stopping numbers, but rather from the interactions between the Narrator and the audience. Eventually the Youth, too, is able to step out of his own story and join this conversation with the audience, questioning who is really in control of a piece of art or a human identity. The director, Katie Cacouris (CC ’15), notes in the program that one of her goals with this show is to offer “proof that stories about deep struggle can and should be told in this form.” This production of Passing Strange accomplishes that, without question.