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Stew plumbs his past for his Broadway debut in `Passing Strange'

Stew plumbs his past for his Broadway debut in `Passing Strange'

When rock musician Mark Stewart heard that President Bush had never been to Europe before becoming president, he sat down and started to write.
"I couldn't believe it," he says in his low baritone voice. "With all the wealth the Bushes had, where was the curiosity in this man to go out and see the world? So I sat down and started to write my own story."
Stewart, or Stew as he prefers to be known, is best known as the lead-singer of a California blues and rock project called The Negro Problem.
In his youth, he fled middle-class family conventions to explore the anarchist communes of Berlin and the hashish bars of Amsterdam, while developing his diverse range of electronica, rock and blues. "It's definitely not the George Bush story," he says with a laugh.
After attending some writing workshops with longtime collaborator Heidi Rodewald, Stew realized that his developing musical, "Passing Strange," would not be strictly autobiographical.
"I wanted this to be a musical you could take your mother to," he said. "I wanted people to say, 'You see this? This is why I left small-town Wyoming to go to San Francisco.'"
The offbeat show, playing at Broadway's Belasco Theatre, is a homage to both artistic escape and down-home, middle-class American families. With Stew as narrator and musician, "Passing Strange" is set to the sharp lyrics and quirky music style that defined The Negro Problem.
As the band name suggests, breaking racial taboos is a Stew specialty and he is immensely proud that "Passing Strange" shines a Broadway stage light on issues often left unspoken.
"I think we're a little too reverent in the black community," he says. "My dream would be to hire the seven wildest black comedians to write a black Monty Python and mess with black psyche in the same way that Monty Python messed with the British psyche. I hope we're approaching that with 'Passing Strange.'"
Daniel Breaker takes the lead role as Youth, a disaffected black teenager searching for ways to escape church, family and identity.
After setting up an all-black punk band that sings with mock-London accents, Youth flees to Amsterdam where he has the biggest discovery of his life: "There's hashish on the menu!" he shouts in a coffee shop before he and the ensemble break into an erotically charged celebration of Dutch liberalism called "We've Just Had Sex."
"I guess Amsterdam was my own private metaphor for the idealism of 1960s America," says Stew. "It has the free love, the free drugs, but, of course, it wasn't hippies who created that in Amsterdam, it was sailors. It's a port town and capitalism gave sailors want they wanted."
He is puzzled that black Americans have written so little about white European society. "But there is plenty going the other way," he says.
It is when the "Passing Strange" story line moves to the anarchist communes and art cafes of Berlin that Stew has most fun with audience perception. In one scene, Youth tries to impress his new Marxist-spouting friends by telling them of his life in the ghettos of south central Los Angeles.
The reality appears stage left _ his middle-class mother talking about the neighbor's garden, which brings one of the loudest laughs of the play. Soon, Youth is stereotyped by his friends as the black American, leading to one of the show's more controversial numbers, "The Black One," in which Breaker dances likes a minstrel in front of the anarchist collective, lamenting his new typecast role.
It is one of Stew's favorite songs.
"I remember there was a black woman in the audience just dying with laughter, hitting her husband on the back like she was trying to knock the stoicism out of him but he wouldn't budge. That is the play right there. Everyone doesn't have to feel comfortable every second."
Breaker seems equally keen to make some audience members uneasy, especially enthusiastic white liberals.
"I love those people. They just saw `The Color Purple' and they are here to see another black play," the actor says. "It's like they're doing their part. It's like they're giving to the Salvation Army. It's black history month and they just watched `Roots' and they watched Ken Burns' series on jazz. And then they see me doing a minstrel show. There is this beautiful shock in their eyes."
As Breaker talks, Stew convulses in laughter, pressing a napkin to his mouth. "Oh, my God," he says eventually. "That's great, we gotta write that down."
They write down a lot and change a lot, which makes for many cast meetings to discuss new ideas.
"We keep what works and if it doesn't, it just falls away," says Rodewald. "I had a lot more lines when we started but, hey, I'm a musician, not an actor."
The show's producers have not been pleased with frequent rewrites while the union clock is ticking, says Stew. "What they say doesn't bother me," he adds with a shrug. "I tell them that's the play you bought. I'm not going to claim for a second that it's your average Broadway plot line. If it's a little off-balance, then we know we're doing it right."


Updated : 2021-05-16 14:24 GMT+08:00