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

The rock musical Passing Strange is a quirky amalgam: the autobiography of a young Black American man, a raucous comedy and an international satire, all finished with a soupçon of coming-of-age wistfulness. With a hard-working, creative cast and marvelous musicians, this upbeat night at the theater is just what we all need now.

Passing Strange, Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., extended through April 23

The one-named rock musician Stew wrote the Tony award-winning Passing Strange’s book and lyrics and composed (with Heidi Rodewald) its music. Created in collaboration with Annie Dorsen, the show follows the picaresque journey of Stew’s double, referred to as “the Youth” (Devin Cunningham). He is searching for what he calls “the real”— love, art, music, authenticity. Interspersed with the Youth’s on-stage actions, 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 teenage Youth finally agrees to attend services with his long-suffering Baptist church-going mother. Rolanda Bell is terrific as the fanning and gossiping overdressed church-lady with a deep love for her son.

The Youth gets turned on to the gospel choir and the weed supplied 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, vivacity and excitement.

After a stint with a (superbly awful) punk band, the Youth travels to Europe, first to pot-hazed acceptance by a group in Amsterdam, where he finds unconditional love. But not content with or feeling worthy 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 oppressed American Black dude to gain the group’s acceptance. His attempt is one of the show’s funniest scenes, with its lighthearted satires of two countries at once.

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

If Passing Strange seems familiar, it may be because its inaugural performance was at Berkeley Rep in 2006, before its successful off-Broadway (2007) and Broadway runs (2008). And for the curious, the title Passing Strange comes from Shakespeare’s Othello, act 1, scene 3, lines 158–163, when “passing” meant “surpassingly.” Othello speaks of Desdemona’s response to hearing Othello’s life story: “She swore, in faith ’twas strange, ’twas passing strange;” Of course, now there are various definitions of “passing,” all of which have relevance to the plot.

Kudos to director William Thomas Hodgson for keeping all the balls in the air, Daniel Alley for the animated music direction, Romello Huins and Stephanie Johnson for the fabulous lighted set, and Jasmine Milan Williams for the extravagant costume designs.

The informality and sketch-like humor of Passing Strange belies the thought and talent behind it. It’s a rare theatrical experience; so go and enjoy it.

Passing Strange runs live at the Ashby Stage through April 23. Proof of vaccination and masks are required to attend in-person performances. Reservations are necessary. General admission ticket prices are $28-$40, with pay-what-you-can tickets also available. On March 17, 2021, tickets are $7 for those 25 years and under.

In addition to live, in-person performances, Shotgun offers two live-stream performances at 7 p.m. on March 17 and March 24 for $20. More information can be found at the Shotgun website or by emailing info@broadwayondemand.com. A video-on-demand version will be available starting April 14.

Emily S. Mendel

Freelancer Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although now a 37-year East Bay resident), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...