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‘Passing Strange’ rocks the stage at The Wilma

It's a musical on identity and what it means to be a star.
"Passing Strange" is currently being performed at the Wilma. | Bill Hebert
"Passing Strange" is currently being performed at the Wilma. Bill Hebert

The Wilma Theatre is staging a major revival of the Tony Award-winning musical “Passing Strange,” an evocative, picaresque journey of self-discovery from South Central LA to Europe and back. The performance stars Kris Coleman and Jamar Williams, portraying the roles of the Narrator and the Youth respectively, with Tea Alagić directing.

Stew and Heidi Rodewald’s play tells the story of the Youth, a rebellious young black man who travels in search of something real. He draws himself up from 1970s Los Angeles and makes his way to Europe, with sojourns from psychedelic Amsterdam to militant Berlin. A bohemian lifestyle and rock ‘n’ roll serve as avenues of exploration for the Youth as he struggles with finding an identity.

“It’s a glimpse in the life of a young man who grows up and with all the trials, tribulations, happiness, and sadness,” said Coleman in an interview. “Everything that you’ve done or set your goals to, it’s alright. Some things you regret, some things you celebrate, but don’t let the things you regret get the best of you.”

That sort of lesson is hard to swallow while you’re young, singing and screaming in defiance while desperately seeking a sense of self. An electric onstage band compliments that boisterous feeling. “It is a musical that’s like no other,” Coleman said. “It forces you to actually listen to it.”

“Passing Strange” is a semi-autobiographical work by Stew, the founder of the innovative four-piece band The Negro Problem in the 90s, in collaboration with former bandmate Heidi Rodewald. The play has its roots in European philosophy, the Harlem Renaissance and New Negro culture. As a story of reflection by the Narrator, he contemplates the evolution of his values now as a middle-aged man and compares them to himself in his youth. “It’s showing how black culture actually is,” Coleman noted. “It shows something you don’t actually see often in our typical media.”

Much of what isn’t discussed enough openly is how artists of color identify themselves. “Passing Strange” is a glimpse of trying to understand and elucidate. “That is actually the whole point of the play,” Coleman added. “Define your identity, even if that identity changes. Because it’s almost like when you’re looking at a play, everyone’s assigned an identity to you, but you have yet to identify to yourself. He [the Youth] doesn’t necessarily have to and that’s also okay.” To be a rock star is an identity that anyone can define--or not define--on their own.

“Passing Strange” runs now through Sunday, Feb 18. Tickets are available at wilmatheater.org, by calling 215.546.7824, or by coming to the theater.