Loading...

Passing Strange: The L.A. Problem 

His play is a Broadway hit, but don't ask Stew to come home again

Wednesday, Apr 2 2008
Comments

“You know how musicians tell little white lies?”

Rainer Hosch

(Click to enlarge)

click to enlarge RAINER HOSCH - Less cheesy: Stew, pictured with Heidi Rodewald, won't look homeward.
  • Rainer Hosch
  • Less cheesy: Stew, pictured with Heidi Rodewald, won't look homeward.

Related Stories

  • Are You Ready to Vote on Weed Shop Policing?

    A proposed law that would have established policing of marijuana dispensaries statewide was essentially killed in the California legislature last week. Dale Gieringer, state coordinator of California NORML, says it's now time to take the matter directly to voters. He envisions the possibility, in 2016, of an initiative that would...
  • Porn's Condom Law Goes Down

    A proposal, dreaded by the porn industry, that would have mandated condom use for adult performers on-set throughout the state of California, was essentially defeated in the legislature today. The bill by L.A. state Assemblyman Isadore Hall would have expanded L.A. County's own mandatory condom rules to reach across the...
  • Porn Company Kink.com Says Oral Sex Doesn't Require Condoms

    Last week the AIDS Healthcare Foundation told the world that it has filed a complaint with Nevada's Division of Occupational Safety and Health over a Kink.com adult video shoot in Las Vegas where condoms were not used. The group argues that federal law, which seeks to protect workers from on-the-job...
  • Henry Rollins: Hemp Is Back 10

    I am in the back of an SUV, the seat in front of me almost against my knees. The great wide open of southeastern Colorado rolls by the window. Except for Kerri, who’s driving, everyone has a laptop open. Phone calls are coming in, logistics are being hammered out, something about...
  • Cali Lives Strong

    Californians spend more in federal taxes than they receive back in services. And the same can be said for healthcare. According to an analysis by personal finance site WalletHub, California barely makes the top 20 (number 19) among states when it comes to "return on investment" (ROI) for healthcare costs...

Less cheesy: Stew, pictured with Heidi Rodewald, won't look homeward.

Mark Stewart, a songwriter, bandleader and musician who goes by the name of Stew, takes a bite out of his rainbow roll and turns to his friend and collaborator, Heidi Rodewald, as if to secure her approval to continue the story. We are sitting, the three of us, in a tiny East Village Japanese kitchen, the kind where they serve lunch specials well through dinner. It is a Saturday afternoon in early June, between the matinee and evening performances of Stew and Rodewald’s new rock musical, Passing Strange, playing nearby at New York’s Public Theater.

Rodewald raises no objections as Stew continues the story of his “little white lie,” which was simply this: “We’re working on a musical.” That’s what he told some “hyperactive New Yorkers” at Joe’s Pub, the bar and music venue next to the Public Theater. “And they said, ‘Really? Let’s see some pages!’ ” He had none, so he went home and wrote some. Fast. That’s how Passing Strange began.

Joe’s had “sort of become our home base,” Stew says, even though he and Rodewald, who plays bass and sings backup, were technically Los Angeles–based musicians. The title song on his last record, 2002’s Naked Dutch Painter, played on KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic for a year, and Stew’s band the Negro Problem had been a regular headliner at Spaceland in Silver Lake. But no one at Spaceland ever wondered whether Stew was working on a play. Or asked to see it when he said he was.

Now Stew, 45, and Rodewald, 48, have moved on from Joe’s and even from the Public. Passing Strange opened on Broadway February 8 to adoring, delighted reviews in TheNew York Times and New York magazine. Stew, currently doing eight shows a week with Rodewald at the Belasco Theater on 44th Street, admits he’s still shocked.

“People refer to me now with a straight face as ‘a Broadway star,’ and I just laugh every time I hear it,” says the singer-songwriter, a big man who appears onstage in a baggy suit and sneakers. “It’s like calling me a Mexican wrestler. Actually, I feel and look more like a Mexican wrestler.”

Stew should be used to the acclaim by now. Back in June, before producers Elizabeth McCann and the Shubert Organization snatched up Passing Strange for Broadway, Hilton Als, in The New Yorker, put Stew in a category with the greats of American theater. Not since Sondheim and Kushner, Als wrote, has anyone written “such a finely crafted, ethnic-minded American musical as Passing Strange.”

You get the sense, reading the press on Passing Strange, that for New York theater writers, the show is something of a relief: a bigtime Broadway show without tap-dancing nostalgia or preternaturally gifted teenagers; a libretto about enduring psychological issues — love, self-acceptance, humility — understood through the story of a thoroughly modern man, one who grew up in the 1970s, black and middle-class, in South Los Angeles. “A Less Cheesy Musical” was the headline on New York magazine’s review by Jeremy McCarter, who praised it as having “the funniest libretto I can remember.” All this comes three years after Stew’s bluff was called in that bar and he began furiously working on Passing Strange: a musical for people who don’t like musicals. And for Stew in particular, a story about growing up black in America that hadn’t yet been told.

A cast of eight revolves around Stew, who holds forth stage center in Passing Strange. The wonderful Daniel Breaker is Stew’s alter ego, “The Youth.” Eisa Davis is the Youth’s graceful, standard-bearing mother, whose heart breaks when she realizes her son, born too late for the segregated fountains, fails to uphold the churchgoing decency she found so necessary to middle-class assimilation. The Youth himself draws few real battle lines between blacks and whites, or even between middle-class and poor. He just wants to listen to punk rock without getting beat up.

“The only race pressure I felt growing up was from inside my community,” recalls Stew, who attended Crenshaw High. “The things that you could or could not do because you were black. The things you could not listen to. The music you would get teased — or beat up — for liking.

“Race is a weird theme park,” he says, “in every sense of the word. It’s entertaining how people get caught up in it. But it’s also really dangerous.”

Passing Strange is a specifically black story, one its author had in his head to tell for a long time. “I don’t think we’ve heard enough about the pressure to conform among blacks,” Stew says. “I’m interested in that — the story of how we get oppressed by our own culture. How we — black people — stereotype each other, and limit each other and judge each other in ways that I find can be even more harsh.”

Related Content

Now Trending

  • REDCAT's New Original Works Festival: From a Table-Puppet Show to a Hip-Hop Ballet

    There is no discernible guiding principle for the selection of the New Original Works Festival's compilation of choreography, spoken word, song and enveloping visual images. The minute you might say, "Ah, these are works that look at the world through symbols," along comes Overtone Industries' Iceland with its old-fashioned love...
  • Neil LaBute Plays Take Over L.A.

    The coldblooded rogues' gallery of antiheroes that inhabits playwright Neil LaBute's universe demands a new word to adequately describe it: La•Bu•tean (lah-byoo'-tyen): adj., of, pertaining to or suggestive of the perfidious cruelty, moral cowardice and emotional retrogression displayed by otherwise average guys, especially when goaded by the manipulative camaraderie of...

Slideshows

  • A Day in Griffith Park
    Pack a picnic basket and escape the hustle and bustle of L.A. by spending the day in beautiful Griffith Park.Stop and grab a cold drink at Trails, then go hike. Stroll around the Observatory. Cruise past The Greek Theater to the Bird Sanctuary, or practice golf and grab a snack at the Roosevelt Cafe. Just remember, you don't need to be a tourist to enjoy what Griffith Park has to offer. All photos by Michele McManmon.
  • FANFARE-LA: Fine Art Nude, Fetish, and Risque Exhibition (NSFW)
    FANFARE-LA, the Fine Art Nude, Fetish, and Risque Exhibition was held Jan. 31st to Feb. 2nd at the Hamilton Galleries in Santa Monica. Here is a peek of the sexually-charged, fetish-fine art that is featured in the show. More info at fanfare-la.com.
  • Gloryhole 2013 @ The Pleasure Chest
    The Pleasure Chest's annual anniversary party, Gloryhole, took place Thursday night, transforming the popular West Hollywood sex shop into a pleasure den filled opportunities to get spanked, tied up and dominated. For those of a more voyeuristic nature, the live XXX Gloryhole installation offered a glimpse of erotic play and sexuality. All photos by Nanette Gonzales.