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Preview Fri Apr 22 2011
If my life story ever gets made into a musical, I want it to be narrated by JC Brooks. Even if the lyrics are composed entirely of lines describing boring everyday things: brushing my teeth; clocking in at work; making dinner; JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound would transform it into a gorgeously memorable journey.
Bailiwick Chicago has taken on Passing Strange, a Tony-Award winning rock/soul musical that premiered in New York in 2008, and was filmed by Spike Lee in a 2009 documentary of the same name. The results are stunning.
Even after seeing the Spike Lee documentary (I watched it directly after seeing the Bailiwick production) I can't imagine anyone but JC Brooks narrating, nor can I imagine any actors cast other than those in the Chicago production. Stephen Perkins plays the role of "Youth", the young man whose journey is being narrated by JC Brooks (who is narrating his own story, he is the grownup version of the Youth), and his take on the character has the perfect balance of self-consciousness and soul-searching that defines the story. Brooks' presence is at once omniscient and so perfectly blended into the story that the one never upstages the other.
The story of Passing Strange centers on a middle class black youth from L.A. who strains against what defines him, striking out on his own first in L.A., then in Amsterdam, and finally Berlin. Throughout his journeys one thing persists in dogging him -- the question of identity, of realness; indeed, every time he seems to get comfortable in one place he moves again, prompting questions of: "why you wanna leave, just when it was starting to feel real?"
Watching the story unfold put me in the mind of another rock musical centered on issues of identity: Hedwig and the Angry Inch. While Passing Strange centers on issues of race, Hedwig and the Angry Inch focuses on issues of sexuality, but the two pieces share much in common -- themes of self-acceptance, the use of music as a transformative medium of expression, and a fascination with Berlin.
Music is so central to this piece that it becomes an uncredited character, there are numerous references to music as a force that writes us instead of the other way around, and as something that is both the means to express what's locked up inside us and yet not enough to replace human connections.
The words are gorgeous all on their own, poetic in their specificity and everydayness with passages like: "Oh Adams and Crenshaw is beautiful and they are laughing in the sun", and "Is he the post modern lawn jockey sculpture? Or just a soul on a role exploding your culture?"
Issues of identity and realness are so central to American narratives that this story could be about almost anyone; who among us has not tried to fit in with a new crowd, or traveled to another city in order to reinvent ourselves? The Youth's self-consciousness and his need to project an exterior that is less nerdy than what he feels inside is something we've all felt as young people. The fact that it is about the experience of a black middle class youth from L.A. puts it into a very specific context, but as one of my writing teachers once told me: "the more specific your story gets, the more universal it becomes." (Thanks Jack Helbig!)
I may not know what it's like to be black, but I do know what it's like to wonder about identity; and as anyone who has traveled to another country can tell you, it's not until you take yourself out of your comfort zone and get dropped into a foreign place that you begin to define yourself -- go to any other country on the planet and you become more American than you could ever be at home. The same can be said for race, religion, and sexual identity. See this musical and you'll learn something about what it's like to be a black middle class youth from L.A.; you'll also learn something about what it's like to be you. As Osiris Khepera, in the role of Mr. Franklin, says early in the piece: "we're all freaks depending on the backdrop." Ain't that the truth.
Passing Strange is playing at the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts (777 N. Green St). Previews this weekend on Friday and Saturday at 8pm, and Monday at 8pm. Post-opening performances on Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm (May 21 and May 28 only), and Sundays at 7pm through May 29. Tickets for previews are $10 general admission, $20 reserved seating, $5 student rush. Tickets for the regular run are $25 for general seating, $35 for reserved seating, $15 for student rush. Warm-up bands play every Friday and Saturday night at 7pm. For tickets and information call 312-733-6000 or visit Bailiwick Chicago.