An all-black musical that ‘transcends the magic’ finally debuts in Utah
Todd Underwood begins the rehearsal by leading his cast through a breathing exercise and a simple instruction: “Be here.”
For the black actors and creative team — including director Underwood — who are directing the musical “Passing Strange” at the Salt Lake Acting Company, being here doesn’t just mean being in the theater. It also means being in Utah, where 90% of the population is white and less than 2% is black.
“I’ve never seen myself in my life represented on stage as someone who grew up in Utah, loves rock music, loves punk music and loves all the things that Utah people don’t get and that come from black culture,” said Latoya Cameron, who is an ensemble member for “Passing Strange,” who says being a part of this production is “everything.”
SLAC’s production of “Passing Strange” runs from April 6 through May 15.
“Passing Strange” is a musical punctuated with humor, religious overtones and great music – composed by Heidi Rodewald and Stew, with Stew penning the lyrics and the book, all created in collaboration with Annie Dorsen.
The story tells the story of a black artist named Youth and his journey of self-discovery. His songs range from rock to gospel to punk, stretching notions of what a musical can be.
The musical spent part of its formative time in Utah, when it was prepared at both the Sundance Filmmakers Lab and the Sundance Institute’s Theater Lab. After productions in Berkeley, California, and off Broadway, it premiered on Broadway in 2008. A year later, a film version of the Broadway production, directed by Spike Lee, premiered in Park City at the Festival from the 2009 Sundance film.
Cameron, who is also the equity, diversity and inclusion playwright at SLAC, said she first saw a snippet of “Passing Strange” at the 2008 Tony Awards – and was finally saw the entire show when Lee’s film aired on PBS in 2009.
Seeing the show, full of powerful black women screaming and smashing things, “literally gave me permission to exist in this world as myself without apologizing for the kind of things I love as a as a human being and as a black woman.”
Her love for the musical is one of the reasons she bonded with Carleton Bluford, a local actor and the first black playwright to have a world premiere of one of his works in Utah. Bluford plays Youth in the SLAC production.
“Passing Strange” at SLAC
The musical “Passing Strange”, produced by Salt Lake Acting Company.
Or • Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City.
When • Operates from April 6 to May 15.
Tickets • Available at saltlakeactingcompany.org.
What it’s like to be a BIPOC artist in Utah
Cameron and Bluford attempted, more than a decade ago, to pitch the production to theater companies in Utah, without success.
“I remember a specific meeting we had with some people, and [when] we sat with them, it was like they were there physically, but they weren’t listening,” Cameron said.
Bluford described it as a numbers game. At the time, he said, he and Cameron were told there wasn’t enough black talent in Utah to produce the show, or not enough people who would come. look at her.
It’s an “unfortunate” experience for many BIPOC artists in the community, Cameron said, “Being shut down before you’ve even been heard.”
They tried to do it themselves, either by raising funds or by creating their own theater company, but it never came to fruition.
Still, the two say timing is everything, and it feels right to do this production — which they both auditioned for — at this particular time.
“I think it’s even more magical now, because of where we are as artists — and because black artists don’t allow other influences to mute us anymore,” Cameron said. “We amplify not only ourselves, but each other, to stand in our excellence, in our glory. And that, for me, it transcends magic. It’s revolutionary. It’s liberating. »
Bluford said he felt like after a long journey he was “coming into fruition trying to figure out where I am, who I am, and where I’m sitting, especially in Utah.”
Growing up in Utah, he said, “I always felt a lot of expectation to be a certain way with everyone.” Like Youth, Bluford said he struggled with the same things and was “trying to find a voice in a place where everyone wanted to give him a voice.” Also, like Youth, part of Bluford’s story involves leaving Los Angeles.
It’s one of the many ways the cast and crew of SLAC see themselves reflected in Youth’s journey.
Underwood said “the journey to find his darkness and how that manifests in the rest of the world” — something that fits his own life — drew him to directing production.
“It feels like a piece that should be heard and seen,” he said, “and I felt I could bring some artistry to the storytelling of the show.”
Bluford agreed, “People want to be seen. … It’s important for healing, not just for me in the BIPOC community doing the show and the BIPOC community here in Utah, but the themes are universal.
He said he enjoyed the show’s editing process, but admitted it was rare and “you never know if something like that will happen to you again.”
The life of a black show
Attending the first rehearsals of the production, one can feel the magic that happens when everyone comes together and a sense of community is created in the room.
After the “being here” breathing exercise, Underwood speaks to the actors – addressing each as “my friend”. An actor has suffered a minor injury, and Underwood takes the time to address it, asking what he’s comfortable doing in rehearsal that day. Underwood, the rest of the cast and the actor are adjusting accordingly.
It’s a workshop environment, within the small but mighty SLAC scene. Underwood provides notes on the actors’ methods, but also gives them time to ask questions. Some ask about certain scenes and how to approach them.
“This show, every day, reveals even more depth and layers,” he explains. “It’s overwhelming, sometimes, how much that unlocks.”
Having all-black production isn’t just new to Utah. Lee Palmer, who plays the narrator and has been doing theater for nearly five decades, said it’s rare in the arts world in general.
Palmer, who is from the Chicago suburbs, said this was the third all-black production he was involved in. Underwood said it was his second, and it’s a first for Cameron and Bluford.
“Black shows don’t have a long life on Broadway,” Palmer said. “But they have a very long life, usually in the touring community, because people will come and support it if they know it’s there, black people, in particular.”
As audiences follow Youth’s journey, they meet his mother, played by Utah jazz actor and singer Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin. Other encounters are seen through an ensemble cast – featuring Brian Kinnard, Kandyce Marie and Jamal A. Shuriah, Chris Curlett, Mack and Taylor Wallace – who play everything from a Baptist church congregation to transcontinental friends with accents.
“It’s the kind of piece you live for in this business,” Palmer said.
“We are more alike than we think”
The story of “Passing Strange” confronts facets of being black, touching on themes like what it means to be “passing” and “black enough.”
It also touches on themes of religion and finding your own spiritual path outside of your parents — something that may resonate with many people raised in Utah. (Aptly, the building SLAC calls home, at 168 W. 500 North in the Marmalade neighborhood of Salt Lake City, was built in 1896 as a place of worship for the 19th Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints.)
The young man longs to escape the suffocating church community in which his mother has involved him. For Underwood, who grew up in the Baptist church, that resonates.
Iconic church scenes are punctuated with essences of black culture, like the paper fans used in musical numbers — a nod, Underwood said, to the fact that many black churches didn’t have air conditioners. , so people used paper fans to keep cool.
Asked about possible connections to Utah’s religious culture, Underwood said he enjoyed the production because it showed the good and bad of being in a church community.
“There are loving, caring people out there who really want to see young people, young people in the church, rise up and excel,” he said. “Then the other side of that is the hypocrisy of sometimes shutting down strangers or mollifying a question.”
SLAC’s adaptation doesn’t strictly adhere to the musical as it was originally produced, but that’s for the best, as the way Underwood and the cast crafted it makes it stand out. by itself, a unique but nodding homage to the original. It’s a positive story that redefines the narrative of what the black experience can be, while not being afraid to acknowledge the reality of those experiences.
“Come see how other people in the world live, come see their experiences, come see their pain, come see their joy,” Underwood said. “We are more alike than we think, but we are different and those differences are wonderful and should be cherished and honored.”
To put it succinctly, “Passing Strange” is a triumph that awaits – joyful, healing and dazzling. SLAC production recognizes the value of being represented in the media. For those growing up with artistic dreams and looking for a career in the industry, this is a sign that it can happen.
“The thing is, there are so many different beautiful humans that live here, that are within the black community here in Utah, that don’t have the opportunity to exist on stage, fully – out loud, occupying space, occupying environments and just being,” Cameron said. “This piece allows all of us to do that.”
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