Shotgun’s Rock Musical “Passing Strange” Explodes With Youthful Energy

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Left to right: Devin Cunningham, Angel Adekoun, Shakur Tolliver and Myles Brown (back right) in Shotgun Players’ strange passage. Credit: Benjamin Krantz

The rock musical, strange passage, is an offbeat amalgam: the autobiography of a young black American, a gritty comedy and an international satire, all finished with a hint of coming-of-age melancholy. With a hardworking, creative cast and wonderful musicians, this upbeat evening at the theater is just what we all need right now.

strange passageAshby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., through April 10

The single-named rock musician Stew penned the Tony Award-winning Go through Strange book and lyrics and composed (with Heidi Rodewald) her music. Created in collaboration with Annie Dorsen, the show follows the picaresque journey of Stew’s look-alike, nicknamed “the Youth” (Devin Cunningham). He is in search of what he calls “the real”: love, art, music, authenticity. Interspersed with the actions of youth on stage, we are simultaneously treated to the observations and comments of an older stew, in the form of “the narrator” (Albert Hodge).

The action begins in 1970s South Central Los Angeles when the then middle-class black teenager finally agrees to attend services with his long-suffering Baptist mother. Rolanda Bell is terrific as a fanning, gossiping church lady with deep love for her son.

The youth are drawn to the gospel choir and the weed provided by the cynical choir director (Shakur Tolliver). The other multi-talented choir members, Angel Adekoun, Myles Brown, Champagne Hughes and Chanel Tilghman, who play multiple roles throughout the show, add verve, liveliness and excitement.

After a stint with a (superbly awful) punk band, The Youth travels to Europe, first to be accepted by a band in Amsterdam, where he finds unconditional love. But not content or feeling unworthy of that love, he moves on to an angry anarchist faction in pre-unified West Berlin. The Youth tries to refashion himself as the quintessential downtrodden black American dude to gain acceptance from the group. His attempt is one of the funniest scenes in the series, with its light-hearted satires of two countries at once.

Eventually, we all grow up. And at the end of the two-and-a-half-hour production (including an intermission), we find an older, wiser, more grounded and, yes, more real youth.

Yes strange passage sounds familiar, maybe that’s because its inaugural performance was at Berkeley Rep in 2006, before its off-Broadway (2007) and Broadway (2008) hits. And for the curious, the title strange passage comes from Shakespeare Othello, act 1, scene 3, lines 158-163, where “to pass” meant “to surpass”. Othello talks about Desdemona’s response to hearing the story of Othello’s life: Of course, there are now different definitions of “passing”, all of which have to do with the plot.

Kudos to director William Thomas Hodgson for keeping all the balls in the air, Daniel Alley for the lively musical direction, Romello Huins and Stephanie Johnson for the fabulous lit set, and Jasmine Milan Williams for the extravagant costumes.

The informality and sketch humor of strange passage belies the thought and talent behind it. It is a rare theatrical experience; so go ahead and enjoy.

strange passage takes place live on the Ashby Stage until April 10. Proof of vaccination and masks are required to attend in-person performances. Reservations are required. General admission ticket prices are $28 to $40, with paid tickets also available. On March 17, 2021, tickets are $7 for ages 25 and under.

In addition to live in-person performances, Shotgun is offering two live performances at 7 p.m. on March 17 and 24 for $20. More information can be found on the Shotgun website or by emailing [email protected] A video-on-demand version will be available from April 14.

Emily S. Mendel, a longtime East Bay resident, has been a Berkeleyside freelance theater and art critic since 2012.

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