Portland Playhouse’s “Passing Strange” Depicts a Deeply Flawed Artist’s Journey

The rock musical cycles through genres as protagonist Youth searches for where he fits in.

Passing Strange (Shawnte Sims)

Passing Strange takes its title from a quote from Othello, a phrase used by the Moor of Venice as he recounts how he courted Desdemona. That first word, “passing,” is used to convey a sense of extra, or an extreme. In the rock musical created by musician Stew, passing is both layered and more literal, as our nameless hero passes from place to place in search of artistic inspiration—all while trying to pass as anything but himself.

Our story begins in Los Angeles circa 1976, where a Black teen called Youth (Charles Grant) finds his passion for music stymied by his disapproving mother (LaRhonda Steele) and a conformist neighborhood. Seeking “The Real” (the hidden truth of life, a discovery that will make our hero the voice of his generation), Youth travels across Europe as he loves, loses and learns lessons (although perhaps not always the right ones).

Stew, who originally launched the show in Berkeley in 2006 before its award-winning run on Broadway, noted to NPR that Passing Strange is “about the costs of being a young artist.” The story focuses less on Youth’s divine search for truth and more about his myopia, his selfishness, and his callousness.

While many stories about artists like to sand down their protagonist’s rough edges, Passing Strange makes them the central focus. Youth is ultimately a user, someone who only sees the people in his life as obstacles to overcome or fuel for his creative endeavors, and the play’s central tension is less whether he’ll become the great musician he dreams of and more whether he’ll realize what a dick he really is.

Stylistically, Passing Strange’s musical numbers cycle through genres as Youth tries to find where he fits in. Gospel, punk, psychedelic and R&B are all toyed with and presented through the filter of musical theater. Staging the show at the Portland Playhouse proves to be a double-edged sword: The stage, a former church seasoned with chaotic punk graffiti and posters, works to convey the play’s many locations, from a bohemian flat in Amsterdam to an anarchic commune in West Berlin. However, the space itself is small, cramped even, and it’s difficult to create rock-’n’-roll energy in a venue that barely seats 100.

Fortunately, the small cast (seven in total, four of whom take on multiple roles throughout the story) is undeterred by these limitations and fills the space with energy and talent. Grant in particular commits fully to his role, maintaining Youth’s core as a self-important kid even as he hops from one persona to another as he struggles to fit in. However, it’s Jasonica Moore who shines brightest as the narrator, a stand-in for Stew himself, who commands and facilitates the show, maintaining a constant cool as Youth’s efforts mostly serve to embarrass himself.

That secondhand humiliation fuels much of Passing Strange’s comedic voice. For all his pretensions, Youth is still a hormone-addled teenager who can mimic the guise of a great artist but struggles to actually create anything substantive or worthwhile. This reaches a peak in the back half when Youth transforms himself into “The Ghetto Warrior”: a frothing, furious felon who speaks out against oppression that Youth has himself never faced—or, at least, not to the degree he espouses. It’s performative in every sense of the word and is as funny as it is pathetic and meaningless.

At the core of Passing Strange is a message not about creativity or rebellion, but about humanity and a need for human connection. In his quest for artistic greatness, Youth unmoors himself from any real relationships he has, an act that leaves profound scars on the people he loves and leaves. Among the show’s most devastating lines (and there are a few) comes when Youth’s Berlin girlfriend (Lauren Steele) breaks things off with him, saying, “I don’t want to be a song. I want to be loved. And you don’t know the difference.”

Passing Strange is awkward, funny, weird, tragic, life-affirming and disheartening, but there’s a sense of familiarity to it that keeps it from going off the rails. Audiences have seen stories mythologizing the artist’s journey time and time again; Passing Strange strips that legend of its romanticism, crafting a character who is deeply flawed, self-centered and, unfortunately, wholly relatable. It may seem odd at first, but underneath the noise and the laughter is a man forced to live with the mistakes his art can’t fix.

SEE IT: Passing Strange plays at Portland Playhouse, 602 NE Prescott St., 503-488-5822, portlandplayhouse.org. 7:30 pm Wednesday–Friday, 2 and 7:30 pm Saturday–Sunday, through May 26. $5–$59.95.

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