‘Passing Strange’ lets you make your own reality

The Youth is in Berlin flanked by members of Nowhaus during a performance of “The Black One.” The song refers to his tokenization of his identity as he is trying to fit in with revolutionaries. // Photo by Casey G Ford Photography

The lights dimmed; drums, bass and guitar took stage left – another sleek guitar and a keyboard took stage right. A wall of retro stereos cleaved the stage, creating the perfect backdrop for Theatrical Outfit’s rendition of “Passing Strange,” a comedy drama rock musical about a young African American, called only “Youth,” on his journey of self-discovery through artistry. The show opened to the public last Friday, Sept. 29.

Opening weekend welcomed October into the intimate venue – though it was hardly chilly. The Balzer Theater’s charming atmosphere warmed an already pleasant weekend, and as the Narrator (Brad Raymond, “Legacies”) took the stage with a sunny smile and shimmering purple silk shirt, the venue grew warmer still.

Raymond began by asking the audience to listen carefully, drawing them into the show even before its start. “This is not just a play, this is a concert,” Raymond said, opening up the performance with a welcoming invitation to dance, sing along and move to the beat during the show to come.

With that, Raymond disappeared off-stage, the backdrop wall of stereos opening up to reveal him once again in the center with a guitar, opening up the show with its first song “Prologue (We Might Play All Night).” Through the opening, Raymond sets the scene: the Youth and his Mother live in South Central Los Angeles in 1976.

The lead guitarist (Joel Saidi) trills the strings softly as the scene unfolds. The Youth (Christian Magby, “The Flash”) sleeps as his Mother (Latrice Pace, “Shakin’ the Rafters”) struggles to wake him for church.

It is a familiar scene close to many hearts — the silent rebellion of sleeping in on a Sunday.

The Youth reluctantly obliges and heads to church, where he faces the judgment of “church moms” who nag him to join the youth choir. At this moment, he has an unprecedented revelation; he sees “The Real.” However, this revelation is hardly religious, to the dismay of his Mother and the rest of the church moms, who sigh in disappointment as the Youth exclaims, “[Feeling the spirit at] church ain’t nothing but rock and roll… I can’t hear the difference.”

While the Youth temporarily submits to joining the church youth choir to soothe his Mother and get the attention of his crush, Edwina Williams (India Tyree, “Incredible Book Eating Boy”), his initiation into the prayer circle involves him smoking a joint of marijuana. The leader of the youth choir, Franklin (Trevor Rayshay Perry, “Head Over Heels”), is the minister’s son and the golden boy of the church. However, Franklin has other dreams.

“We’re all freaks just looking for a home in this philistine of a fishbowl,” Franklin tells the Youth over a joint.

Franklin tells the Youth about the freedom of Europe and his dream of finally being himself. Unfortunately, Franklin’s dream remains unrealized: “Cowards don’t have options… only consequences,” he tells the Youth. The tables turn for the Youth; he is not like the others. He wants to play rock and roll. He casts aside his friends and family to travel to Europe in search of The Real.

But what is The Real? Ironically, The Real is a construct — a whisper of a secret truth we all search for. For some, The Real is religion; for others, academia. For the Youth, it is his rock music. Everyone is drunk on something.

The central conflict of the play is the idea of “passing.” Franklin says to the Youth, “We’re passing for Black folk.” In America,

Franklin and the Youth tried and failed to put themselves in the box of others’ design. Their Blackness — the very identity the Youth left America to escape — became a tool of tokenization in his journey abroad.

As the Youth builds his “found family” abroad in Amsterdam, he becomes “bored of paradise.” For the purpose of composing music borne of pain and sorrow — the only muses the Youth has ever known — the paradise of Amsterdam’s freedom wears thin. Next he travels to Berlin, creating another family for himself and falling in love with Desi (Arianna Hardaway, “Zombie Prom”), a Marxist from West Berlin and the leader of Nowhaus, a collective of revolutionaries. The Youth has finally found his new family — but again, he must become someone he is not.

In Berlin, the Youth tokenizes the Black identity he once cast aside in order to appeal to his revolutionary friends. He adopts stories of oppression that he personally had not experienced, though people in his community had. The play took a humorous approach to this situation by juxtaposing his tales of violence and entrapment that he told the Nowhaus members against the truth of his childhood.

In his personal reality, his Mother was his warden — his identity, the shackles. When Desi calls him out for trying to “pass” once again, the Youth runs away from his crisis — just as he ran away from Amsterdam.

The crisis culminates in a phone call between the Youth and his Mother. She confronts him for fleeing his home in Los Angeles, crying out, “Why don’t you want to be around your own people?”

With the confrontation from both Desi and his Mother, the Youth crumbles. The stories of oppression he had told his friends — though not truly his stories — reflected the pain within him. The turmoil within him is something much less concrete.

It is the struggle of identity — of losing yourself in the journey to find yourself.

His pain is the reason he has chased The Real so far away from home, so how can he let it take shape? To let his pain out is to let it go, and if he mends himself, how can he make art?

The phone conversation the Youth has with the Mother is heartbreaking. As students, we can almost feel the conversation ourselves.

At this stage in our lives, we have all left our home in some way. The Youth is yelling — crying — into the phone, but Mother no longer answers. Her last words were “I don’t want to be [your] song, I want to be loved.”

Magby and Pace gave a moving performance. Magby especially

shows his versatility in this scene, showing the audience his belting and ballad capabilities.

The Youth responds, “It’s not love if somebody has to change.” Something trembles within the audience. We are the Youth. We are the Mother. The Youth’s very character — nameless — lends itself to this embodiment.

We were all no more children chasing The Real, but at some point, we have also been those lonely souls cast aside in someone else’s journey. During this moment, the poignant emotion and viscerality of it all reveal the allegorical Youth and Mother.

During the phone call, the Youth is aloof and defensive, but the Narrator’s facial expressions during the scene show the audience the Youth’s true feelings. Raymond gives a spectacular and meta performance as the narrator, reflecting the inner condition of the Youth through his distraught gaze.

The ability of Raymond to put himself in the shoes of both Magby and the Youth’s character as a whole solidify Raymond’s ability to bridge the performance and audience.

The final scenes of the show transcend the stage, speaking directly to the audience: “Your life becomes evidence of the need to feel.”

The actors delivered the core message of “Passing Strange” flawlessly. Theatrical Outfit’s showing of Passing Strange is not to be missed, and the show’s unique, intimate atmosphere and masterful performance create an unforgettable experience.

The show will have you asking whose Real you are living in and who you are passing as. Theatrical Outfit’s performance grabs you by the shoulders, imploring, “Who are you, really?”

“Passing Strange” is showing from Sept. 27 — Oct. 22. More information can be found at theatricaloutfit.org.