Stew (Book & Lyrics); Stew & Heidi Rodewald (Music)
Created in Collaboration with Annie Dorsey
A young, wide-eyed teenager – identified only as “Youth” – is searching for his real self, something beyond his life as a middle-class, black kid in Los Angeles living with his big-hearted, Jesus-loving mom. His multi-year journey is recalled by his forty-something self who oversees his memories as the “Narrator” of the dreamscape we as an audience are about to experience. The journey is one of self-discovery of his song, his music, and his art as well as of his unique identity, his trusted soul, and the artist within him. To reach his destiny, he must travel through adventures with many quirky, weird, and fantastical friends, domestic and foreign; through mind and body trips stimulated by the mesmerizing words of a minister, by the smoke of hashish, and via the grains of coke; and through sexual encounters his teenage mind can hardly imagine. And along the way, music thrusts him ahead – gospel, blues, punk, jazz, and especially the hard beats of rock – music that sends toes tapping, bodies rocking, and spirits soaring among us as audience.
Shotgun Players reopens after a two-year, COVID break its thirtieth season with an exciting, pulsating, and emotionally charged Passing Strange. Returning to the city where the 2008 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical co-premiered (along with Public Theater) at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, this Passing Strange is Director William Hodgson’s imaginative, hard-hitting, heart-pounding re-invention of that original production – one that reaches out to grab its audience by the jugular in the intimate Ashby Stage and does not let us go until the final chords of the two-hour, thirty-minute, mind-blowing musical.
Waving his arm like a magical wand, the Narrator directs the four-person band one-by-one to begin sounding their beats and chords, the band being positioned on the multiple levels of Romello Huins’ other-worldly stage. In his role of introducing and sometimes manipulating scenes and characters, Albert Hodge is a show unto himself without ever getting in the way of the memories that spill from his past onto the stage before us. Both his narrative and sung voices have a magnetic quality to command our attention, employing dizzying pace and well-placed pauses, accented phrases via powerful lungs, and an uncanny manner of knowing when to be the center of attention and when to fade into a convenient shadow. His expressions bring their own storyline as we watch the joy, the humor, the anger, and the pain that these memories engender in his expressive countenance. His own transformation from a third-party narrator finally to be the first-person “I” of the story is one likely to bring tears to most watching eyes.
Equally powerful in a memorable performance is Devin Cunningham’s “Youth.” As he sets out to discover “the real,” he often has a look of wide-eyed, innocent wonder as he reaches each new stop along the way. The Youth begins his search at the local Baptist church in L.A. where with ecstasy beaming from his shaking, arm-waving body he declares, “I’m having a religious experience.” Even though the rich, raspy voice of the Reverend Jones sings out to assures him, “Music is the freight train in which God travels,” the Youth decides religion is not enough and concludes to his not-too-pleased mother, “We’re just a tribe of bluesy Africans and church ain’t nothing but rock ‘n roll.” And after a slap to the Youth’s face by that much-upset Mother, the observing Narrator sounds out in a gospel-like declaration of truth:
“In church he began his search down a road that would not bend,
In stained glass light the pilgrim went in search of a song that would not end.”
The “road that would not bend” leads the curious and daring teenager through a number of new, exhilarating experiences. Whether singing in a church choir, forming his own punk band, venturing to the world of weed and free love in Amsterdam, or landing in the center of leathered and tattooed protests against capitalism in Berlin, the Youth jumps in with eager excitement. He delves into all new sexual, hallucinatory, and life-expanding possibilities with vigor. However, he continues to find that the song he is searching is still somewhere else rather than where he is – finally to discover it has been developing within himself all along the way. As the Narrator observes at one point, “He is trying to write a song, but the song is writing him.”
Through it all, Devin Cunningham triumphs as a Youth who shout/sings his punk-beat “I’m the soul brother,” finds himself in a threesome singing with triumphant delight, “We just had sex,” and trips the light fantastic in a drugged-out state of starry euphoria singing, “I’m starting to feel real.”
Along with the Narrator and the Youth is a stellar cast of four who each play an incredible, eclectic assemblege of characters that populate the former’s memories of the latter’s adventures. Shakur Tolliver employs his wonderful, back-throated voice full of scratch and rasp as the hypnotic evangelist Reverend Jones in L.A. and as the wild and scary Venus in Berlin whose own drug trip sends his body into such convulsions, gyrations, and falls that one wonders how the actor can get out of bed the next morning. Mr. Tolliver is also the swishy butt, youth director Franklin who tempts with a deep, swirling voice the Youth to smoke his first joint. In Amsterdam, he is a clothes-shedding Joop who sees nakedness as the Youth’s possible path to enlightenment. In each case, Shakur Tolliver is himself worth the price of the evening’s ticket.
But such claim could also be made by Chanel Tilghman who – as the tempting teen Edwina and choir mate of the Youth in L.A. – asks on bended knees in front of the yet-again-wide-eyed Youth’s crotch, “Do you want some of this blessing?” She is also the leathered Desi in Berlin who wants to heal the world by smashing all capitalists and who lures the Youth into bed with the repeated song of “only love is real.”
Angel Adedokun is terrific as the Youth’s not-so-good but hard-pounding, punk-rock drummer, Sherry, and also as a sweet- and solicitous-voiced Mariana who in Amsterdam sings to the teen an invitation that he cannot refuse of “take my key. Myles Brown, among other roles, is an angry anarchist in Berlin named Hugo who sees “pop music as the religion of the opiated” and who joins the rest of the cast in a stage-erupting scene of “May day, may day, there’s a riot coming down” where the Youth is caught up in a light and sound storm of bodies in total mayhem.
Along with the Narrator’s ever-watching eyes are those of a Mother who looks on from shadowed corners with an increasingly broken heart as her son rebels from all that she holds as true. Rolanda D. Bell brings a commanding presence and a resounding voice to a performance that cannot help but remind us of those times we disappointed our loving mother in one way or another. Who cannot experience some inner regret hearing her implore pleadingly, “Why don’t you make room for me as I make room for you?” Even as the Youth is thousands of miles away, Mother’s eyes peer into the distance trying to find her missing son as her voice implores him with requests he often never hears.
Binding together this tale of self-discovery is the music of many genres that is directed by Daniel Alley and so wonderfully played by himself (keyboards), Vincent De Jesus (drums), Bennett Hull (guitar), and Michael “Tiny” Lindsey (bass). The band members are themselves integral members of this cast, responding musically to the actions, shifts, and emotions of the characters and their persona as well as expanding and punctuating the many nuances the actors bring to their parts.
That same kind of character interaction and enhancement comes from the wide array of costumes designed by Jasmine Milan Williams. The many shifts and changes that occur among the personalities would never work as well as they do without the artistic imagination expressed in an eye-popping range of color, materials, and styles.
Toward the end of Passing Strange, the Narrator declares, “So I finally found a home, between the clicks of a metronome, in a song.” That song still has its regrets for him; but one can tell by the final hug he gives his younger self that the journey’s memories still resonate as a tool for his ongoing growth as a person and an artist. And as we walk away from this Shotgun Players’ arresting production of Stew’s Passing Strange, we realize we are not quite the same as when we entered the Ashby Stage, having grown a bit more ourselves.
Rating: 5 E
Passing Strange continues in extension through April 23, 2022 in live performance on the Ashby Stage of Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley, CA. Live streaming performances are available March 17 and 24, 2022. Tickets for both are available at www.shotgunplayers.org .
Photos Credit: Benjamin Krantz