Passing Strange, the 2006 musical by Los Angeles–based songwriter Mark "Stew" Stewart, is a witty bundle of contradictions. It's an autobiographical monologue (in the style of Mike Daisey or Spalding Gray) but with an ensemble cast; it's a solo show that is also a rock concert.
Stew, played in this production by working musician LeRoy Bell, narrates his story about growing up as an African American kid in Los Angeles who fled to Amsterdam and Berlin, while the cast acts out different scenes from his life. Stew was escaping expectations, both about the shape of his life (his mother wanted him to become a respectable homeowner and churchgoer) and the limits of American blackness (his and his friends' secret interest in Camus and Godard made them feel like they were "passing" for African American). Once he makes the passage to dreamy, sexy Amsterdam and hard-edged, anarchic Berlin, Stew can begin the hard work of figuring out who he wants to be—or, in his words, finding "the Real."
But though he's escaped what he calls "the middle-class coon show" of his upbringing and "sits in a cafe like Baldwin back in the day," it's not a pleasure cruise. Growing up involves growing pains—heartbreak, shattered illusions—and he has occasional inklings that his relentless search for himself can slide into self-absorption. Bell delivers Stew's sharp one-liners and observations with a world-weary deadpan, watching his younger self (played with jumpy energy by Andrew Lee Creech) clown and stumble around those early years. At one point, young Stew tries to earn respect from the anarcho-Marxist performance-art community of Berlin by asking if they "know what it's like to hustle for dimes on the mean streets of South Central." Stew knowingly eyeballs the audience—he knows that we know that he knows he was being a fraud. This self-awareness is what gives Passing Strange its cutting comedy as well as its pathos. It is a brutally honest portrait of the artist as a confused young man—anyone who's wiled away youthful years as a wannabe expatriate artist should be able to relate. But Stew—and one presumes Bell, who's spent a career working with musicians such as Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Teddy Pendergrass—is one of the lucky ones. As he sings toward the end of the show: "I finally found a home/Between the clicks of a metronome." But, man, the price he had to pay to get there.