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Passing Strange

By Beth Herstein

Stew and Heidi Rodewald in Passing Strange
The autobiographical show Passing Strange, opening tonight at the Public Theater, tells the story of an unnamed Youth and his bohemian search for The Real, which takes him from his solidly middle-class home in Los Angeles to Amsterdam, Berlin and beyond. Passing Strange, written by Stew and his partner Heidi Rodewald, is notable for its largely sung through nature, its use of a rock/cabaret band and the mixing of musical genres, and the presence of a musical narrator and manipulator of the plot (Stew himself), who is on the stage throughout the show's approximately two-and-a-half hours.

Despite the music, bright lights and poetry which swirls around its core, the show is a relatively straightforward coming-of-age tale. A middle class black youth from 1970s Los Angeles rebels against his mother, smokes pot with his friends from his church choir, forms a derivative and not-too-highly skilled punk rock band and, after high school, spends a few wild years in Europe as an Artiste before coming home and commencing his adulthood. Passing Strange features uniformly energetic and accomplished performances from a youthful cast who breathe life into a varied assortment of characters.

Daniel Breaker
Heading the cast is Daniel Breaker, who plays Youth, the young counterpart of Stew himself. The actor can relate to Stew's tale of his itinerant years. Breaker - a self described army brat - was born in Jacksonville, Florida, but traveled a lot while growing up, living in Illinois, Kansas, and North Carolina before ending up in New York to attend Juilliard. Though he continues to travel professionally, New York now functions as his home base. Coincidentally, Breaker also spent several years in Germany, where Stew traveled as a young man and where part of Passing Strange is set. This experience enables him to relate even more closely to the themes of the play. "I went through the same stuff that Stew went through in terms of trying to find an identity," he says. "People would look at me and almost put a stereotype on top of who I actually was."

Breaker has been with the show, which has been in development since 2004, since its 2005 Sundance workshop. "I was doing a show [there] for a friend of mine, and someone said they needed another actor for this musical. They said it was just a musical, but obviously it's far more than just a musical. I joined them as a secondary thing and fell in love with the show." Some actors joined the cast further down the line, but all of them premiered the show at Berkeley Repertory Theater, which is co-producer of the show along with the Public Theater. By now, Breaker says, the cast feels like a true family.

Breaker has a solid background performing the classics - not only at Juilliard, but as an "unofficial member" of D.C.'s Shakespeare Theater Company, founded by Michael Kahn, one of his Juilliard mentors. He finds it thrilling to work with "a writer who's not dead." He loves the collaborative process and appreciates how "wonderfully receptive" Stew is to the input of the actors. Moreover, he states, Stew keeps the show fluid and gives the actors reign to improvise to this day. "In traditional theater, you usually are more locked in," he explains. Passing Strange, on the other hand, is always full of "new moments." This is not to say that Breaker doesn't rely on his classical background for this show. Not unlike a Shakespearean work, he states, the language and form of the work is poetic and challenging, requiring him to use his acting chops.

The 27-year-old actor, who has "hit the ground running," working regularly in meaty parts since his graduation from Juilliard in 2002, already has a few future projects lined up. This fall, he'll be at the McCarter Theater, returning to his classical roots in Moliére's Tartuffe. He also will be performing with the Theater for a New Audience in a theatrical adaptation of the Aphra Behn novel Oroonoko. For now, though, he is relishing his work in Passing Strange and enjoying working at the "history making" Public Theater.

Rebecca Naomi Jones
Actor Rebecca Naomi Jones is another performer whose career has gotten off to a promising and quick start. She graduated from North Carolina School of the Arts in 2003, and, among other projects, has already understudied in the Los Angeles production of Caroline, or Change under George C. Wolfe's direction; starred as Joanne in the 10th anniversary international tour of Rent (everyone always assumes that, with her big voice and dynamic presence, she played Mimi, she says; but, the role of Mimi had already been cast and she loved playing Joanne); and appeared in a 2006 Fringe Festival hit, a rock musical entitled Fallen Angel. In fact, for all her classical training in dramatic theater, she has appeared in just one non-musical since her graduation. Although she is somewhat bemused by this fact, at the same time she isn't surprised that she's been drawn, so far, to edgier, boundary breaking musicals. "Where I fall is more in the realm of something alternative. Music-music, rather than conventional theater music."

Unlike Breaker, who plays the Youth throughout, Jones portrays a number of the women who pass through the central character's life. The energetic and enthusiastic Jones loves the diversity opportunities this affords her, including the opportunity to play characters from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. She avoids the trap of playing into racial and ethnic stereotypes by keeping a simple fact in mind. "It's a matter of considering each character as in individual," she says.

In prior interviews, Stew has suggested that Rodewald's input into their collaborations ensures that females are given vibrant life. Much like Rodewald, the women playing these colorful and strong women are a dynamic, intelligent and versatile group. "They're amazing," Jones comments. "It's unbelievable how pleasurable it is to work with them. Everyone brings her own distinct and different perspective" to her parts. In addition, like Breaker, Jones has high praise for the cast as a whole, and enjoys the bond they've developed while participating in Passing Strange. "We're like a big, dysfunctional family," she says, "but in a great way. And, we're all keyed in with each other."

In the future, Jones has plans to branch out into music production and writing. More recently, the New York native hooked up with an old friend from day camp, after years of being out of touch; and, the two of them are collaborating on various projects. At the same time, she is relishing the experience of Passing Strange and hopes to "take this ride as long as it goes. I've never been so in love with a project."

Passing Strange runs through June 3 at the Public Theatre. For schedule and ticket information, visit

Photos: © Michal Daniel, 2007

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