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In the Tony Award-winning musical Passing Strange, opening April 25 at Signature Theatre, Youth, a young musician, sets out on a globe-trotting adventure of self-discovery. Traveling from his middle-class Los Angeles birthplace to Amsterdam and Berlin, the protagonist hones his musical chops, searches for “the real,” and figures out who he is, all while accompanied by a genre-bending soundtrack that includes blues, punk, heavy metal, rock, jazz, funk, and gospel.
Director Raymond O. Caldwell saw the original Broadway production in 2008 and considers it “one of the most brilliant pieces of theater that I’ve seen,” he tells City Paper. “It deeply inspired me as an artist.” Caldwell is the producing artistic director of D.C.’s Theater Alliance and has directed productions at Round House Theatre, the Kennedy Center, Imagination Stage, Mosaic Theater Company, and African Continuum Theatre, among others. He’s also a former faculty member and resident director at Howard University.
He was so taken by Passing Strange that when Spike Lee filmed the Broadway show, Caldwell bought the DVD as soon as it was released in 2010. “It was one of the very first musicals that I thought, ‘I have to own this so that I can watch it whenever I am feeling artistically low,’” he says.
His devotion to the work has paid off. When Signature Theatre’s artistic director Matthew Gardiner asked Caldwell last summer if there was something he wanted to direct, Caldwell knew immediately. “Passing Strange was the first musical that I ever wanted to do,” he says.
With Gardiner’s support, the musical was put on Signature’s 2022–2023 docket. Caldwell has assembled a cast and design team he describes as “top-notch in making a world happen and bringing this world to life in phenomenal ways.”
The show doesn’t only highlight the artistic coming-of-age of one young man, but puts his story in a context that interrogates what it means to be a Black man in America compared with liberal parts of Europe. It also mixes in questions about economic status as it intersects with racial identity.
Creators Stew and Heidi Rodewald (the duo wrote the music and Stew wrote the book and lyrics) started out in 1995 as part of the band Stew and the Negro Problem. From the beginning, the group mostly played smaller clubs and they continue to do so today. Even when they opened for a Counting Crows tour, they played small venues between the bigger shows.
Stew and Rodewald started writing Passing Strange in 2004, but kept tinkering with the lyrics until the night before they opened on Broadway in 2008. Even after putting in those years of work, they had no idea it would inspire a long-lasting response—not only in theaters across the U.S., but internationally as well, in Argentina, Australia, and New Zealand.
“There is this new generation of young people that have this energetic ‘I just discovered this!’ kind of attitude,” Rodewald tells City Paper over email, regarding the artists who are currently producing the show. “Really, it’s pretty emotional to have these people so blown away by the whole thing.”
Stew also loves seeing the ways other artists interpret the show, which he named after a scene in Othello, in which Desdemona describes Othello’s tales as “passing strange,” (meaning, beyond strange). It also refers to a subset of Black people who pass for White, a topic explored in the show. Stew recently saw a staging of the musical at New Jersey’s Vanguard Theater Company and looks forward to attending the one at Signature.
“Coming from the club world, the record album world, I look at it like people doing covers,” Stew explains. “Passing Strange might have just slightly alluded to queerness. The production at the Vanguard really heightened that in such a wonderful way … they were able to make it more contemporary and to bring it right up to date with the issues that young people are talking about.” Depending on the slant chosen by a particular artistic team, newer productions can reference both the Black Lives Matter movement as well as more recent developments within the LGBTQIA community.
At Signature, actor Deimoni Brewington plays Youth, working through the ways Youth explores his racial identity as someone who grew up middle class. “The show does deal with Blackness and in what ways is it tied to hustle and poverty, and what does it mean if that’s not your story?” Brewington says. The actor is 24—old enough to feel that his character, who embraces a rebellious, punk rock aesthetic, harkens back to his own youth.
While Passing Strange may focus on a specific character’s specific journey, the theme is a broader one. “I think the way that Stew tells the story makes most people, of all ages and colors, look at themselves, and all the crazy decisions they made,” Rodewald says. “It makes them (and me) identify with Youth.”
Rodewald describes herself as “a White girl from Orange County,” California, who can relate to Youth’s journey. “I cringe at so many things that I did and decisions I made when I was ‘finding myself.’ But this show is so much heavier than that with all of the layers because Stew’s story is a Black one.” As Youth travels across countries flexing his young independence, he also grapples with racial identity and what his Blackness means to him throughout the show.
Caldwell, who grew up in Germany in the 1980s and spent many of his childhood summers traveling Europe, weighed in on some of the racial layers of the play. “Every August my family would travel, and so oftentimes I spent my childhood discovering Europe as well. [This] production is my love letter to Black culture, to rock ‘n’ roll.” He notes that Black Americans can often find a sense of liberation in Europe, and its readiness to embrace experimental art.
Brewington echoed this sentiment, referring to the way artists such as Jimi Hendrix and James Baldwin had to leave America to uncover what it meant to them to be a Black person.
When Stew and Rodewald created Passing Strange, they were musicians first. “My goal was not to go to Broadway,” Stew says. “It just seemed like a novel, fun thing to do. There certainly wasn’t a plan to become theater people.”
And yet, 15 years later, the playwriting duo have become theater people. Stew teaches musical theater at Harvard and he and Rodewald are currently working on two musicals—one based on Chris Rock’s film Good Hair, the second a full-length movie with Lee.
Now they can look back and see how their years of gigging at smaller clubs, their willingness to stretch themselves into new mediums of theater and film, and their talent for melding multiple genres has paid off in reaching a broad audience. Rodewald sums it up: “Something you don’t think about earlier in life, that this thing that you spent so many years on has this big of an impact on people.”
Passing Strange, directed by Raymond O. Caldwell, with book and lyrics by Stew and music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, runs April 25 through June 18 at Signature Theatre. sigtheatre.org. $40–$98.