Passing Strange

This week, the American Theatre Wing announced the nominations for the 2008 Tony Awards for outstanding performances on Broadway. African American performers and producers snagged a total of seven nominations, including Laurence Fishburne, who was nominated for best leading actor in the play Thurgood, a one-man show based on the life of Thurgood Marshall; and S. Epatha Merkerson, nominated for best leading actress in a play for the revival of Come Back, Little Sheba.

Yet perhaps the most exciting nominations for African Americans this year rests with the musical Passing Strange, which garnered five nominations including best musical, best book of a musical, best featured actor, and best featured actress.

Passing Strange is an autobiographical, coming-of-age story of an African American teenager on a quest for self-discovery in a decidedly black middle class world of 1970s Los Angeles. The play takes the audience on a voyage to Amsterdam and Berlin, then back to California, and is based on the life of singer and songwriter Stew, the lead singer of The Negro Problem, a pop rock group from Los Angeles.

Passing Strange unapologetically and adroitly pushes the boundaries of what the stage, screen, or other forms of entertainment and media stereotypically define as black. For Stew, black is not just gospel, jazz, and the blues. Black can be large, two-story homes on palm tree-lined blocks in an enclave of southern California. It can be Zen Buddhism, Maria Callas, or “a colored paradise,” as the lyrics of one of the play’s songs describes the protagonist’s world. Passing Strange challenges the audience to consider another hue of the African American experience. With punk, soulful rock, and a tinge of gospel, this incredibly original musical turns on its head what blackness is and can be.

The musical’s ingenuity has earned it the praise of filmmaker Spike Lee, who said in a promotional letter to theatergoers as the show made its Broadway debut in February, “I’m writing to urge you to go see it [Passing Strange], as this fresh musical is an unstoppable force of energy, music, and mayhem–just what Broadway needs.”

Part of what makes Passing Strange so appealing is that its outstanding, all-black cast plays a tantalizing array of characters, from experimental southern California teenagers, to good old, churchgoing black folks, to Dutch bohemians, to German revolutionary artists. All with a deftness of skill, black actors are seldom afforded an opportunity to share over the course of a career let alone a single production.

Yet, despite the support of folks such as Lee, stellar reviews, and seven Drama Desk Award nominations, Passing Strange has not generated a golden box office. To date, the play has grossed only $2.7 million. Its gross for the week ending May 11 was only $205,944. This compares to a weekly gross of $526,333 for In the Heights, also up for best musical, and $1.2 million and $1.4 million, respectively, for the long-running hits The Lion King and Wicked.

Passing Strange’s box office hurdles could, in part, owe itself to some of its risqué attributes