Now you don’t know me
And I don’t know you,
So let’s cut to the chase,
The name is Stew
— The Narrator, “Passing Strange”
South Central Los Angeles, 1976. The lawns are manicured, the palm trees sway, the savings bonds are tucked optimistically away.
But the Youth is restless. He stays out late. He dabbles in Buddhism. He bickers with his mother. Then something occurs. He attends church service. The sermon leaves him cold but the choir lights a fire.
So begins “Passing Strange,” Stew’s semi-autobiographical account of artistic self-discovery. Washington University in St. Louis’ Performing Arts Department (PAD) in Arts & Sciences will present the Tony Award-winning rock musical Oct. 21-30 in Edison Theatre.
“It’s a coming of age story,” said director Ron Himes, the PAD’s Henry E. Hampton, Jr. Artist-in-Residence, and founder of The Black Rep. The lead character, known only as the Youth, “is experimental, inquisitive and open to new experiences. But he’s also self-centered.” As the story progresses, “he is molded, he is shaped and he is colored.
“He is challenged,” Himes said. “And he reinvents himself.”
‘It’s all about the journey’
Following his musical revelation, the Youth briefly joins the church choir, where the pastor’s son introduces him to philosophy and marijuana. He learns guitar and forms a punk band. But the band breaks up after a bad LSD trip. The Youth decamps for Amsterdam.
“He goes to Europe to find himself,” Himes said with a laugh. “That’s what Hendrix had to do. L.A. can’t handle a freaky black man.”
Life is good in Amsterdam. The Youth takes up with a group of artists. His days are happily debauched – perhaps too much so. His music dries up. And so he leaves again, arriving in Berlin amidst a May Day riot. There, he falls in with a revolutionary cadre and falls into bed with their leader, Desi.
“In Berlin, things become more political,” Himes said. “The cadre is full of angst. Everybody hates the system, and they change how he thinks and how he sees the world. They also confront him about his own commercial tastes. He’s brave, but he’s not brave enough to be adventuresome in his music.”
In response, said Himes, the Youth “adopts this whole ‘ghetto persona.’ It’s not who he is, but he can get away with it there. But Desi sees through it. She asks him to take off his mask, but he can’t. That’s when things starts falling apart.
“I think the show will resonate for a lot of parents,” said Himes, noting that “Passing Strange” will coincide with Parents Weekend. “I think about myself, running around campus at 18- or 19-years-old, thinking I knew everything. … Reflecting on your own life gives you a greater understanding for what young people are going through today.”
At the same time, “I hope that students will see that you can’t be afraid to search,” Himes said. “You’ve got to take those leaps. They help to shape the person you become.
“In the end it’s all about the journey.”
Cast and crew
The cast of 12 is led by David Dwight as the Youth, Ebby Offord as the Mother and Charles Glenn as the Narrator. Also appearing, in multiple roles, are Brandace Anderson, Mario Davila, Chris Gauss, Tre’von Griffith, Elvin Hu, Neema Kamala, Amarachi Onyema, Alessandra Silva and Namrata Vakkalagadda.
The band is led by musical director Charles Creath, and features Provost Holden Thorp on bass guitar. Set design is by senior lecturer Rob Morgan, with assistance from Sydney Shafer. Costumes are by Bonnie Kruger, professor of the practice in drama.
Projection designer is Sean Savoie, with lighting by Dominick Ehling and Adam Kern. Sound is by Jon Zielke. Choreographer is Michael Uthoff, artistic director for Dance St. Louis.
Assistant director is Michell Miller, a master’s candidate in the PAD. Technical director is Mike Loui. Stage manager is Sarah Azizo, with assistance from Amelia Ma. Props master is Emily Frei.
“Passing Strange” begins at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 21 and 22; and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 23. Performances continue the following weekend, at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 28 and 29; and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 30.
Performances take place in Edison Theatre, located in Mallinckrodt Center, 6465 Forsyth Blvd. Tickets are $20, or $15 for students, seniors and Washington University faculty and staff, and $10 for WashU students. Tickets are available through the Edison Theatre Box Office.
For more information, call 314-935-6543 or visit edison.wustl.edu.