More than 13 years after its first Broadway performance, Passing Strange is finally making its Utah debut. The raucous rock musical will be performed at Salt Lake Acting Company from April 6-May 15.
Written by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, both members of the rock band The Negro Problem, Passing Strange follows the artistic and personal coming-of-age of a young Black man in 1970s California, referred to only as Youth (Carleton Bluford). Youth, seeking what he calls “the real,” may be inspired by the gospel music he hears in church, but he still rejects the conservative Christian faith of his mother (Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin). With commentary from the wry, fourth-wall-breaking narrator (Lee Palmer), Youth travels to Europe in search of “the real,” diving headfirst into a messy exploration of sex, family and identity.
Though Passing Strange was embraced by critics and won a Tony Award, the musical is an underappreciated cult favorite rather than a big mainstream hit. Still, there remains a fan base for the show and its eclectic score, which features energetic rock songs with influences of soul, gospel and avant-garde music. One of those fans, Spike Lee, filmed the Broadway production in a documentary that premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. (That’s not the musical’s only Utah connection. The creative team first developed Passing Strange at the Sundance Theater Lab in 2004 and 2005.) Now, Utah audiences will have their first chance to see the musical live onstage.
Before leading this production at Salt Lake Acting Company, director Todd Underwood was a fan of the show’s score, especially after watching the cast’s memorable performance at the 2008 Tony Awards. “I need to know this piece because this one little number is blowing my mind,” he thought to himself. Now, Underwood’s appreciation for the musical has only grown. “This piece continues to reveal itself to me every single day…It can change people, can heal people, can give voice to things that maybe you didn’t know needed.”
For Underwood, the narrative of Passing Strange contains poignant parallels to his own life. He grew up in Tuscumbia, Ala. in a devoutly religious household—his grandpa even founded the church his family attended. He too discovered his love of music through the church—and eventually rejected some of the teachings he grew up with. After coming out of the closet in college, Underwood took his first professional job touring with a production of Blackbirds of Broadway in Europe, a period that was formative in his own self-discovery.
As Underwood discovered his own personal connections to the material, he encouraged his cast to bring their own experiences and identities to their performances. Underwood describes the protagonist’s journey as “finding what Blackness means for him and how he can be his most empowered self in that Blackness.” To facilitate that same journey with his actors, Underwood’s process began with what one cast member called an “emotional inventory”—in one-on-one interviews, he asked each cast member “what was your search for your Blackness?” Underwood wanted to emphasize that racial identity was a process of discovery, not a fixed state. “It’s a constant search to see where you fit in, in the skin that you’re in,” he explains.
While Underwood says he always tries to create a safe, trusting environment for every production he directs, his experience with Passing Strange has been unique. “There aren’t a lot of all-Black shows that speak to Blackness, so to be able to share and be open and honest in a room like this is incredible,” he says. “There’s a freedom that I wish could go on in all spaces.” As the cast has shared their own stories, Underwood has gone through his own emotional inventory. He cites one particularly poignant line from Passing Strange—speaking with an important mentor, Youth says, “I don’t feel as ugly as I did yesterday.” “My journey is realizing that I’m not ugly because of my skin color, that I’m not ugly because I’m gay and I’m not ugly because I’m black and gay,” Underwood says.
While Passing Strange is rooted in the specific experiences of Black identity, Underwood says the musical is “universal in its themes—love, family, searching, acceptance.” “You learn a lot going to the theater, especially theater like this, where you are probably being exposed to something that you’ve never even thought of before. And I hope that the ride that [audiences] go on is one of joy and self-reflection and light.”