'Passing Strange' production passes through ASU's West campus

Traditionally black musicals have made a place in the theater world all their own, whether it's a cult classic like "The Wiz" or a tear-jerker like "The Color Purple." "Passing Strange" is a unique rock musical that's coming to ASU's West campus this month. 

This 2008 Tony Award-winning musical tells the journey of a young African-American artist named Youth in the 1970s as he travels from South Central Los Angeles to Europe in the hopes of finding himself and what he considers "the real." The play is semi-autobiographical of its creator, singer-songwriter and playwright, Stew. Its Southwest debut is directed by ASU Interdisciplinary Arts and Performance faculty, Jeffery Kennedy.

Kennedy has been teaching at ASU for 15 years, working to direct on theatrical productions at ASU, particularly in partnership with iTheatre Collaborative. He has been asked many times to direct "Passing Strange," but he never found the right cast — until now.

"It's definitely a student show," he said. "I think students are going to love this show." 

Kennedy explained the importance of having productions like "Passing Strange" come to college campuses. He said that performances allow students to be a part of things they might not otherwise experience.

"University productions can do more experimental work and push the boundaries," he said.

Kennedy sang praises of the show's excellence, saying that audience members will be surprised at the twists the plot takes. He also said they will be awed by the musical talent of the cast.

He also disclosed that although it features an all black cast, "Passing Strange" defies all stereotypes, particularly because it is a rock musical and does not fit the norm of minority productions. Throughout the play, the protagonist, Youth, rebels against expectations for him as a black man whether they come from society, his church or his own mother.

This aspect of the play's storyline reflects the personal experiences of its cast members as well. Musical theater transfer student John Batchan said that often times in his career others have expected him to play certain roles even though they did not fit his particular vocal range or style. However, for "Passing Strange" he said he is able to perform a variety of archetypes, including his role as Terry and Reverend Jones.

Batchan said that the play explores the idea of finding your identity, your passion and "what makes you, you," as he described it.

"Even older audiences can look back and say that they went through a time when everyone disapproved of their decisions but they followed their own path anyways." Batchan said.

He began his musical career at 17, so in his experience he said that he believes the play will also really speak to young aspiring artists and considers it one of the best he's ever done.

"Everyone can benefit from seeing and experiencing other arts like this," he said. "And anyone who’s looking to escape the outside world for a bit can get lost in this world for a bit. There’s so many good things about the show that are beyond flashy lights and jazz hands."

The performance is intended for mature audiences only as many of the play's themes are serious and heavy. 

“I think the piece as a whole is a lot to swallow. … There’s a lot of deep stuff in it.” Batchan said. 

Kennedy and Batchan both also cite language, sex and some drugs. Kennedy said the content of the play, while slightly risqué, is true to the setting and experiences of the characters. However, they maintain that the production is still tasteful and respectful. 

Although the production's debut is during Black History Month, this was more of a coincidence rather than a conscious plan. Nevertheless, the cast and crew believe that "Passing Strange" is still a celebration of the month.

Jacqueline Monet, an ensemble character in the show who also plays multiple roles, said there are few roles for minorities or plays which allow minorities to portray nontraditional roles. She said that "Passing Strange" moves this unfortunate trend in the right direction by showcasing black actors in parts they might not otherwise portray. 

"It shouldn’t matter what you look like as long as you are being your true self, your real self," she said. "Our characters don’t fit into boxes."

Monet, who has performed in both professional and community theater, said "Passing Strange" is one of the most interactive and collaborative plays audiences will ever experience. Guests are encouraged to sing along, laugh out loud and feel as though they are a part of the show. 

"There’s nothing like this," Monet said. "If you miss out on seeing this production, you might not get to see something like this come along again."

The cast and crew members have performed the play at the Herberger Theater Center in downtown Phoenix but are especially excited to have the show premiere on ASU's West campus. The play will perform its opening night at ASU's campus in its Second Stage West theater on Feb. 18 to 20 at 7:30 p.m. and Feb. 21 at 3 p.m.

To find out more information or to purchase tickets, visit the event page. Student tickets cost $5. 

Related Links:

Center stage: David Saar on the importance of theater for youth

ASU production 'Lasso of Truth' tells the complex, kinky story of Wonder Woman's creator

Reach the reporter at nlilley@asu.edu or follow her @noelledl on Twitter.

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