The Black One

When I first decided I wanted to produce Passing Strange, I did think twice about what it would mean for a white guy to be directing this all-black show which is at least partly about racial identity. But (as I've written in this space before), I've worked on lots of shows about times and places unfamiliar to me. Certainly I'm more in touch with African American culture in my lifetime than with the 1920s New York demimonde or 1940s Argentina.

I've learned in rehearsal that because of the nature of the story, I do have to be even more open than usual to suggestions and concerns from these black actors -- especially in regard to the sections of the show set in the black community in Los Angeles. Still, no matter how sensitive I am, no matter how much black culture I imbibe as we work (Spike Lee films, James Baldwin novels, etc.), we're still doing what is essentially a black show (Stew might argue with that label a bit, but still...) with a white director, all white designers, and an all-white band.

But last night something really interesting struck me.

This show was created on Stew's band, The Negro Problem -- which is an all-white band, other than Stew himself (which makes the name of the band even more interesting). And Strew's co-composer, Heidi Rodewald is a white woman. And the show's original director Annie Dorsen is a white woman. The original scenic design was by David Korins (white guy), with costumes by Elizabeth Hope Clancy (white woman), lighting by Kevin Adams (white guy), and sound by Tom Morse (white guy). Wow. Really?

But now that I put all these pieces together, what does that mean?

Race is certainly an issue in the show, although not in the way it usually is. In this case, the protagonist is grappling with what race means, what it implies, what it requires from him, what expectations it creates in others. In this story, it's not about bigotry, oppression, or any of the usual issues around race. And to a large extent, the Youth rejects the conventional notions of race and, though he does try to "cash in" on race in Berlin, he ultimately rejects race as a fundamental identifier.

To complicate matters even more, we've cast a mixed-race -- and very light complected -- actor (Keith Parker) in the role of the Youth. So the Youth's decision in the show to use his race as his entrance into the Nowhaus community takes on an even more complex tinge than it did in the original. In a way, Keith represents America in a way we wouldn't have even thought about ten years ago. People talk about "the browning of America," meaning not just the increase in population of Americans of color, but also the continual mixing of races and the subsequent blurring of "the color line." When it's hard to tell what someone's race is, race can't be used as a weapon. I see nothing but good coming from all that, but you know there are lots of people in America (Tea, anyone?) who are terrified of this.

Stew was prompted to write Passing Strange in reaction to the incuriousness and lack of worldliness of George W. Bush, but perhaps this is really a show, more than any other I can think of, about the era of the mixed-race President Barack Obama.

Race was obviously a big part of Hair, but we've never done a show that grapples with the complexity of race quite like Passing Strange does. It's tough and it's also exhilarating.

I guess in a way I struggle with race as Stew does, but in a totally different way. For Stew, it's deeply personal. In my case, I've been working for most of the life of New Line on getting racially diverse casts on our stage, to make our shows look like our community. I believe that's a fundamental responsibility for someone running a theatre company like ours. I'm proud to say that in our last ten seasons, we've only had 4 or 5 shows with all-white casts. We've even organized two local forums on race and St. Louis theatre (from which I learned a lot). Of course, we can still do better in that arena.

Anyway, I think I can finally let go of my "white guilt" over producing Passing Strange. If Stew himself gathered an almost entirely white group of artists around him to create this piece, he must think that's okay. And if it's alright with Stew, then it's alright... cue music...

What a wonderful, deep, fascinating show we're working on! We are all so damn lucky.

Long Live the Musical!