Passing Ain’t All That Strange: A Review
by Dax-Devlon Ross
Can there be love without understanding? Must love be understood in order to be real? What is real, anyway? These are just a few of the weighty questions the unnamed protagonist in Passing Strange, a newly-opened play at New York’s Public Theater, crosses the Atlantic Ocean to answer for himself. His journey from a backward Baptist church and the insipid, iron-fisted middleclassdom of his Los Angeles community to the blasé cafés of Amsterdam – and onward to Berlin! – is supposedly one of self discovery. Following in the footsteps of aspiring black artists like James Baldwin who could find neither peace of mind nor a place in the sun in the United States, our nameless hero dreams of being born anew on foreign soil. He departs with the earnest, if not idealistic, ambitions of the prodigal son, certain that life is out there, awaiting him, and that it is his responsibility to track it down. He convinces himself that if he does not leave, he is doomed—doomed like his mother; like his friends; his neighbors; like his flamboyant, dope-smoking choir leader, whose epic European effusions remain tethered to his preacher-father’s wallet, and by his own self-effacing cowardice. No, our hero intends to strum his guitar, scribble his songs, fall in love and taste the unfiltered version of Life a la Baldwin’s Another Country and Giovanni’s Room. As a teenager he’d sought spiritual salvation and transcendence in eastern philosophy, the church, acid tabs, punk rock bands, and in the eyes of a first love. One by one, they all failed him, fell apart. Disintegrated. And yet, in their way, they gave him a glimpse into life’s possibilities—what was out there for anyone willing to expose themselves to the unforseeable elements.
Amsterdam is too much for our hero, though. The pleasure becomes too routine, the love too free. The generosity, the openness, the pure pursuit of beingness—all of it threatens to annihilate him. Though he successfully discovers his Self – that he is a living, breathing being worthy of love – his identity – who he is – remains a mystery. When his lover, a Dutch girl named Renata, accuses him of being too burdened by neurosis to enjoy life in the moment, she is implicitly helping him define himself in an instance of utter desperation. In fact, all throughout Passing Strange women – or men of ambiguous sexual orientations – plant the seeds of enlightenment, and guide the protagonist along his interior odyssey. Despite his emotional and physical distance from her, his mother remains the moral conscience of the play, always in the background; His Dutch lover shows him that he is desirable; his German girlfriend teaches him that love does not have to be understood, just valued; and that people are real, not merely canvases upon which we paint our own impressions. Even as these lessons are revealed to him, however, and in spite of his precocious intellect, their meanings elude him until he returns to America for his mother’s funeral several years after his initial departure. It is there, back in the very church he once dutifully attended, on the verge of repentance before the judgmental eyes he fled years earlier, that he finally discovers that the purpose of his journey was not self-discovery, but self-abandonment; that he may have moved abroad to find himself, but his real achievement was losing himself. For a period of time at least, he belonged not to his mother, his church, his middle-class upbringing, his debutante girlfriend’s idea of the perfect beau, or even black America. Outside of the “fish bowl” better known as Los Angeles he could breathe, try on identities without the fear of judgement, and get to the bottom of his enigmatic black self.
Passing Strange exists within a distinct and long tradition of African-American and American art. The unnamed protagonist is Ellison’s highly impressionable unnamed invisible man; he is the curious, but naive Clay in Amiri Barack’s classic Obie Award Winning, The Dutchman; he is the alienated Cross Damon in Richard Wright’s existential opus, The Outsider; he is the uproarious, hyper-verbal Gunnar Kaufman in Paul Beatty’s novel, The White Boy Shuffle; and he is the soul-seeking J. Sutter in Colson Whitehead’s allegorical folk odyssey, John Henry Days. Passing’s protagonist is also part of the tradition of African-American musical outsiders. He is Jimi Hendrix and Bad Brains and Living Colour and Lenny Kravitz and Prince and T.V. on the Radio. He is that weird black kid who wears his jeans tight, his hair wild and listens to groups like The Killers on his iPod. But he is also the typical American male. Self-indulgent. Self-involved. Anxious for a “new” adventure; a dreamer lost in the American mythology of innocence, individualism and mobility; a believer in the capacity to destroy the past and erect a unique identity outside of history. Indeed, the neurosis that Renata exposes in Passing is bound up in the protagonist’s inescapable Americanness—the same Americanness that James Baldwin’s Giovanni levels against David, his reluctant American lover, in Giovanni’s Room.
“You do not,” cried Giovanni, sitting up, “love anyone! You never have loved anyone, I am sure you never will! You love your purity, you love your mirror—you are just like a little virgin, you walk around with your hands in front of you as though you had some precious metal, gold, silver, rubies, maybe diamonds down there between your legs. You will never give it to anybody, you will never let anybody touch it—man or woman. You want to be clean. You think you came here covered with soap—and you do not want to stink, not even for five minutes, in the meantime.”
When our hero’s German girlfriend, Desi, surmises that he has been pretending to be from the ghetto in order to hide his actual self and trade on black authenticity, she gives him a dressing down that echoes Giovanni’s. All she wanted from him was the real him, and yet he was incapable of giving that to her, or anyone else for that matter; doing so would mean relinquishing his self-constructed destiny and opening himself up to the very thing he fears most (but encounters throughout his journey)—that he really isn’t that strange after all. He is need of love; he is full of contradiction; and, for better and for worse, he is as bound to his American past. As Baldwin himself put it, “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.”
Nevertheless, in as much as Passing stands on the broad shoulders of numerous aesthetic antecedents, it is entirely unique in its expression and vision: Stew, the troubadour-narrator, is an irreverent mix of borderline burn out and borderline genius. No one is spared his acerbic sense of humor. His stabs at he black church cut even deeper than Baldwin’s pokes in Blues for Mr. Charlie. His negative appraisal of black middle-class values implicitly questions Raisin in the Sun’s upward mobility morality. If that wasn’t enough, Stew parodies Dutch bohemians and German radicals alike with an all-black cast. In the play’s most conspicuous and fascinating flouting of traditional stage (and screen) drama rules, the black actors plays the Europeans our hero encounters abroad. They don stereotypical Dutch and German accents and brilliantly spoof their cultural idiosyncrasies. In what amounts to a 21st century reverse minstrel show, the actors not only exhibit their interpretive range – which is awesomely comprehensive – they reaffirm the black writer’s ability to interpret more than just black culture, something Baldwin, again, did masterfully in Another Country.
But what is perhaps most telling about Passing’s complexity and originality is that Stew is no less severe in his critique of the dreamer, the seeker, the one who would forego life and the duties of the living for artistic achievement—himself, in other words. Our hero’s early life, the life we follow him through for the two-and-half hours, is fraught with missteps and oversights. Along the way, people get hurt, some, including his mother, irretrievably so. Indeed, our hero’s relationship with his mother is particularly hard to stomach because it touches on many of the unspeakable issues within the black mother-black son dynamic. As a single mother, she relies on him to complete her life in the way a husband normally would. He is the vessel through which all of her life-force is filtered, the object of her undivided attention. Our hero, sensing this pressure to fill the shoes of an absent father, recoils from the responsibility, ultimately retreating across the ocean. Abroad, his mother quickly becomes part of the past he is escaping and yet invariably beholden to, a past he, at best, feels ambivalent about.
Passing Strange doesn’t come along every year or even every couple of years. Rarely does a truly unique take on black identity slip through the cracks and into the mix. It is intimate and yet expansive; personal and yet epic. It astutely balances cynicism with optimism and tragedy with humor. It threads the needle between intelligence and pedantry, between being carefully crafted and improvisational. Most importantly, though, it is a gem from beginning to end.
For more information about the play read the NY Times review here