Passing Strange: An Interview with Creator & Musician, Stew

by LIZA MITCHELL
It is known that art often imitates life, but, in some cases, it fills in the blanks. Stew, the singularly named author of “Passing Strange,” set out to tell to the greatest story never told when writing the Tony award-winning musical. He wanted to color outside the racial lines and into the suburbs, where living comfortably wasn’t predetermined by your skin tone. “Passing Strange” also assigns the voice of his alter-ego, Youth, to tell an honest tale of existential adventure, self-exploration and what it really means to search for “the real.”
Players By The Sea, presents the Northeast Florida premiere of the groundbreaking musical “Passing Strange” at 106 6th Ave. N. in Jacksonville Beach. The production is staged at 8 pm, April 12, 13, 18, 19, 20, 25, 26, 27, May 2, 3 and 4. Matinee performances are held at 2 pm, April 21 and 28. All tickets are $25. Early reservations are recommended by calling 249-0289, as studio seating is limited.
For one night only, Stew himself will appear for a post-show jam session presented by Atypical Arts at 11 pm, Saturday, April 27. Tickets are $35 for admission to the jam session only and are available exclusively online at www.stewjax.eventbrite.com.
“Passing Strange” is directed by Barbara Colaciello, the award-winning director, actress and founder of the Players By The Sea School of the Arts. Bryant Miano is Musical Director; Matt Morgan serves as Vocal Coach and Choreography is by Alejandro Rodriguez. The cast features Dewitt Cooper as Narrator, Antoinette Johnson as Mother and Steve Anderson as the young bohemian, Youth.
“I wanted to tell this story because I knew it had never been told before. When I was growing up, there were two experiences I wanted to know more about but never saw depicted: the black, middle class experience and the making of an American artist of color. So I just wrote the play I would have wanted to see when I was 15,” says Stew. “I wrote it for my friends, family and all the people I played in bands with growing up, all the black rock freaks who had to hide their David Bowie records when the gangbangers would get on the bus, so they wouldn’t get pummeled, all the kids who wanted more than what their church-going, two-car garage worlds were giving them. I felt white teen angst had been quite well-documented, thank you, and I wanted to add some black teen angst into the mix.”
Stew likes to call “Passing Strange” a work of “biographical fiction.” He says every single scene in the play was directly inspired by an actual event or collection of events, but few things in the play happened exactly the same way in real life. “In writing [Passing Strange], I didn’t do anything different from what a novelist would do: took my life and tweaked it,” he says.
He marvels at the notion that someone who writes and appears in a play must be writing and acting solely from an autobiographical place. “I find it quite interesting that the writer’s physical presence in a piece would make people assume he was acting as some kind of ‘truth police’,” Stew says. “I think [Passing Strange] pointed up certain assumptions people have about writers, performers and biography itself. People seem almost disappointed when I tell them just how fictional [it] actually is. My mom did not die while I was in Europe. But I wrote that for the same reason any writer would. It was dramatic.”
“Passing Strange” does not tell Stew’s actual story, but it tells an interesting version of a young life searching for its own truth, “the real” as it is called. It is a heartfelt and often hilarious story of the physical embodiment of Youth, rebelling against the middle class life in LA and sinking its teeth into the bohemian culture of Amsterdam and Berlin. The lesson is simple. You are who you who, regardless of where you are–but the message is delivered in a one-two punch of biting wit and balls-to-the-wall rock n’ roll.
Stew will deliver his own min-rock odyssey – a style of music he refers to as ‘Afro Baroque Cabaret’ – playing material from “Passing Strange,” with his band The Negro Problem as well as other non-PS tunes. He is excited to engage the audience at such an intimate venue and to perform for people who have hopefully seen the local production, “so they can compare and contrast, so to speak,” he says.
“Having seen many fantastic productions of [Passing Strange] at every level, I think you have to start with the music. If the music is genuinely rocking, then it all flows from there. You could do this play in a backyard, and it could rock if the music is right. We didn’t even have a set for the actual production, just chairs, bodies and guitars,” says Stew. “Intimacy is the key ingredient for any genuine artistic experience, at least as far as my work is concerned. Yes, of course there are artists and audiences that get off on a big, giant stadium of people chanting something in unison, but that kind of ‘sharing’ is different from what happens between performer and audience in a small setting, which to me feels more like the artist is telling the audience a special secret meant only for them at that very moment.”

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october, 2021

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