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At Portland Playhouse, a vibrant and ‘Passing Strange’ coming-of-age tale

Stew's rock musical about a young Black musician's flight to find his own way gets a rollicking, heartfelt production in a space that feels made for it.

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Delphon “D.J.” Curtis, Jr. (left), Charles Grant and Jasonica Moore in “Passing Strange.” Photo: Shawnte Sims

Portland Playhouse has a knack for noticing and capitalizing on its location—in what was once the Mt. Sinai Baptist Church in Portland’s historic King neighborhood, a place where Black worshippers once gathered to lift their voices in song and praise in a city not inclined to welcome them. The space contains some history of resilience, some practice at nurturing culture and voice. 

What better location for a beloved rock musical about a Black youth finding his voice as an artist, as a man, as a Black American, as a lover, as a son? And why not cast and build the musical with an array of mostly Portland-based, mostly Black artists who understand how to sing and how to embody joy and struggle?

Conceived in this way, Passing Strange, which continues at the Playhouse through May 26, is made for this space. With a book and lyrics written by the singer-songwriter known as Stew (Mark Lamar Stewart) and fantastic music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, the play follows the journey of a young man, known as Youth and played with wide-eyed enthusiasm by Charles Grant. He fights his middle-class Los Angeles upbringing, with its expectations for uprightness, and experiments with various ways of rebelling and chasing liberation modeled by others. Ultimately, Youth breaks away to immerse himself in the loose freedom of Amsterdam before moving on to smash artifice in Berlin.

The music is what drives this show—it’s more a rock opera with a story than a traditional musical–and there is lots of it. And with a cast that features LaRhonda Steele (known as the First Lady of Portland Blues) as the Mother who Youth feels he must keep at a distance; her equally talented daughter Lauren Steele in a variety of roles, including as a Berlin diva who sees through Youth’s attempts to “pass” as “ghetto”; and also Delphon “D.J.” Curtis, Jr., Andrea Vernae, and Jelani Kee, all beloved on Portland’s stages, Grant is in very good company. In this iteration, Passing Strange feels like church, even as it searches for meaning in places the Baptists wouldn’t have approved of.

From left: Jasonica Moore, Charles Grant, Andrea Vernae, Lauren Steele. Photo: Shawnte Sims

In the original production, Stew himself functioned as the narrator and nurturer of the story: You can see him and a remarkable cast including the great Colman Domingo in Spike Lee’s wonderful 2009 film of the Broadway show, which I highly recommend. In this production, Stew is wonderfully embodied by a newcomer to Portland stages, Jasonica Moore, and she is a real standout. Director Rodney Hicks (also well-known to Portland audiences) has infused this production with more female and nonbinary energy, shining different light on Youth’s resistance to his Mother, his many dalliances with identity, and his pattern of stepping away “right when it was starting to feel real.” 

In a show so concerned with the little traps Youth falls into in his search for a self that feels authentically his, the Portland production’s playfulness around gender, held by Moore’s powerful voice and stage presence and her alternately stern and compassionate eye on the proceedings, feels right.

Coming-of-age stories aren’t especially unique, but Passing Strange approaches the genre from a place that feels very specifically and richly connected to Black experience, to the challenge of navigating a variety of opinions about what it means to be Black in America. There is a lot of humor about Black cultural expectations and the pressure on Youth to hide aspects of his identity, or to “blacken it up.” 

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Music is such a powerful vehicle for these reflections, putting them beyond words and into the body—and the production benefits from deft music direction by Kennedy Verrett and energetic choreography by Muffie Delgado Connelly. Portland Playhouse is such an intimate space for a musical: The cast is working it all around you, close enough that you can feel the exertion.

From left: Delphon “D.J.” Curtis, Jr., Charles Grant, LaRhonda Steele, and Lauren Steele in “Passing Strange.” Photo: Shawnte Sims

Stew presides over the proceedings in the original production from the knowing distance of a middle-aged man with eyes on his own youthful mistakes. Moore as Stew offers a different vantage which, though not named directly, moves the action to a place where sexual sparks can fly in all directions, where gender expression is included in the struggle for identity, and where love and understanding flows to youth from energy that is prominently feminine. 

The directing and casting choices here infuse the play with new energy, and push it to the edges of current struggles for expression. The production design (scenic design by Gisela Estrada, lighting design by Diane Ferry Williams, and costume design by Wanda Walden) likewise immerses the audience in the action, surrounding you with color and graffiti and a sense of worlds traveled.

The best way to approach this show is from the inside, and this production invites you in. If you try to analyze it too much, you will only get in your own way, much as Youth does. Best to take the invitation and enjoy it with your body and heart. When we finally do that, different answers emerge. 

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Darleen Ortega has been a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals since 2003 and is the first woman of color and the only Latina to serve in that capacity.  She has been writing about theater and films as an “opinionated judge” for many years out of pure love for both.

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2 Responses

  1. It has been so exciting to watch Charles Grant from afar as he blossoms at Portland Playhouse, where I used to volunteer in the safe days before Covid.

  2. This is a beautifully accurate review of this show, and most especially in the reviewer’s observation that the show must be experienced in person to be fully appreciated! A remarkable production on every level!

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