My story being done,
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs;
She swore, in faith ’twas strange, ’twas passing strange;
‘Twas pitiful. ’twas wondrous pitiful,
She wish’d she had not heard it, yet she wish’d
That heaven had made her such a man . . . .
— Othello, the Moor of Venice, act 1, scene 3, lines 158–163
“Slaves got options . . . . Escape, revolt, death — options. But cowards ain’t got shit. Cowards only have consequences.” dig me?”
— Mr. Franklin, from Passing Strange
THE LAST TIME I sat and watched something that had such deep cultural resonance/relevance was when I had to drive out for an early morning screening of Charles Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger for a piece I was putting together about the director for L.A. Weekly– 20 years ago! Sitting in that small screening room alone, it took me awhile to realize that I was crying — me? Yes, albeit quietly.
The film filled me with something amorphous, ineffable. It didn’t just feel like slipping into a life that was familiar, but the more close-to-the-bone-and-heart things: like, the footfalls, the nuances, points of references even the and silences. Sure it was L.A.: the light, the strapping California Craftsman the family clustered within, even the linen cloth covering the dinner table, the china and crystal arranged just so — all of it found someplace at my core — and landed a powerful punch.
Passing Strange — the film, shot and directed by Spike Lee (now just out on DVD) — struck me precisely the same way. It was if I was walking through a house where I knew where everything was. This time, I sat on my own sofa in my living room and cried.
This time the emotion was even more complex. I’d been angered about the fact that the play hadn’t been offered some place to sit a spell in Stew, the playwright’s city of origin.
It found its shape and form at Berkeley Rep first, then leapfrogged to NYC. I was thrilled to see the Tony win. But that of course created something else inside me: a mix of frustration, anger, regret with my happiness. Why not here? The place that not just inspired it, but instigated it.
Passing Strange confronts something I’ve long considered to be a moving target — identity.
Stew, who is best known as one-third of the band “The Negro Problem,” tackles post-Civil Rights/integration identity in Los Angeles — just at the time disco is pressing against punk, just as black kids are being bussed over the hill into the valley and closer to the beaches. L.A. integrated, grudgingly. Stew didn’t have time to wait for the results. He pressed on over the pond.
The music captures a mix of that moment and weaves in Stew’s trajectory: psychedelic late-60s, funk, obtuse jazz, noize, shudder punk, Weil and Brecht — “til chaos feels like home…” It’s hard and hopeful. Tragic and transcendent, but not in an easy, happy ending way. In other words, there’s always a crossroad — what do you gain and what do you lose? The soul always figures prominately as component in the transaction.
While the title plays on a trope familiar to most African Americans — light-skinned blacks “passing” as white to slip through antique social and economic barriers, Stew, however, is dabbling in a bit of triple entendre. “Passing Strange,” taken from a line in Othello, means “surpassingly strange”—stranger than strange. He is playing with various levels of meaning however. He, the “youth” (Daniel Breaker) who would become Stew, and the gay but closeted minister’s son, “Mr. Franklin” (played with note-perfect longing and repression by Colman Domingo), discuss matters of “blackness” and escape while getting high in a blue VW bug “floating above” South L.A.. (“If I were any more real, chile, I’d be fiction.”) Mr. Franklin talked — painted Europe impressionistic strokes, though he had never been, hadn’t had a chance to live it. Both of them consider the weight of “race” and what comes with it, what ties them down — the assumptions and definitions, they understand their position, or rather, “plight” as — “passing for black.”
“I’m a resident of Los Angeles — I know what it’s like to be dead.”
— the Youth
Stew grew up not far from where I did. This I learn by piecing together lyric shards — the streets and vistas that make up my memories. He reminisces about Arlington Hill (“Thrill Hill,” my parents called it) — the dip that shocks you as you sail south, away from from the I-10; he reanimates storefront churches; he critiques “those L.A. ladies in their Mercedes who lock their doors if you just sneeze” and a “South Central” L.A. that put his “soul in the deep freeze.” Young Stew knocks around Europe only to find there are no answers — ones that work for keeps that is. All of this leaves him not so much between worlds or between cultures — but more poignantly still at odds with locating himself. Defining himself for himself would take something else all together.
“Adams and Crenshaw are beautiful”
— from Arlington Hill
Black in L.A. in the 70s and 80s: We were in a paradise sure enough, but someone else’s. “Black in America” was supposed to mean something much different by then, so much sacrificed? But did it? And what would that be? Especially when black people ourselves were creating and enforcing confining regulations and language around the entire concept.
“Passing Strange” moves so fiercely into those quiet spots of conversation. The things we often don’t utter even to one another. Stew and his partner Heidi Rodewald have given those swirling emotions — dread, fear, claustraphopia, elation, frustration — language. Actually, more than language. They’ve turned them into music and lyrics — complete with rhyming couplets — they’ve turned the messy business of identity into a cycle of indelible art song.