Todd Underwood begins the rehearsal by leading his cast with a breathing exercise and a simple command: “Be here.”
For the black actors and creative team—including Underwood, the director—who are directing the genre-bending musical “Passing Strange” at the Salt Lake Acting Company, being here isn’t just about 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 on stage in my life as a person who grew up in Utah, loves rock music, loves punk music, and loves all the things that the people of Utah don’t understand and that come from black culture,” Latoya Cameron, who is a cast member on Passing Strange, says being in the production is “everything.”
SLAC’s production of Passing Strange runs from April 6th to May 15th.
Passing Strange is a musical full of humor, religious overtones and great music – composed by Heidi Rodewald and Stew, with Stew writing the lyrics and book, all in collaboration with Annie Dorsen.
The story follows a black artist named Youth and his journey of self-discovery. His songs range from rock to gospel to punk, expanding notions of what a stage musical can be.
The musical spent part of its creation in Utah, where it was directed 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 filmed version of the Broadway production, directed by Spike Lee, premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival in Park City.
Cameron, who is also SLAC’s Justice, Diversity and Inclusion dramaturge, said she first saw a snippet of Passing Strange at the 2008 Tony Awards — and eventually saw the entire show when Lee’s film aired on PBS in 2009 .
Seeing the show full of powerful black women screaming and breaking things “literally gave me permission to exist in this world as myself without apologizing for the kinds of things I only do as a human and as a black woman.” like.”
Her love of musicals is one of the reasons she reached out to 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 SLAC’s production.
“Passing Strange” at SLAC
The musical “Passing Strange” produced by the Salt Lake Acting Company.
Where from • Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City.
When • Runs from April 6th to May 15th.
tickets • Available at saltlakeactingcompany.org.
What it’s like to be a BIPOC artist in Utah
Cameron and Bluford tried introducing the production to theater groups in Utah more than a decade ago – without success.
“I remember a particular meeting we had with some people, and [when] We sat down with them, it was like they were physically there, but they weren’t listening,” Cameron said.
Bluford described it as a numbers game. At the time, he said, he and Cameron were told that there wasn’t enough black talent in Utah to produce the show, or not enough people to come and see it.
It’s an “unfortunate” experience that many BIPOC artists in the community are going through, Cameron said: “Closing before they’re even heard.”
They tried to do it themselves, either fundraising or starting their own theater company, but it never worked.
Still, they both say timing is everything, and it feels right to do this production — which they both auditioned for — at this specific point in time.
“I think it’s even more magical now because we’re there as artists — and because black artists no longer allow other influences to mute us,” Cameron said. “We reinforce not only ourselves, but each other to stand in our excellence, in our glory. And that goes beyond magic for me. It’s revolutionary. It’s liberating.”
Bluford said he felt like after a long journey “it’s only now 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 had great expectations that I was supposed to have a certain way in everyone.” Like adolescence, Bluford said he struggled against the same things and “trying to have a voice in one place to find where everyone wants to give him a vote”. As with Youth, part of Bluford’s story is leaving Los Angeles.
It’s one of the many ways the cast and crew of SLAC’s production are reflected in Youth’s journey.
Underwood said “the journey to finding your own blackness and how that shows up in the rest of the world” — something consistent with his own life — is what led him to direct the production.
“It feels like a piece that should be heard and seen,” he said, “and I felt like I could bring some kind of art to the storytelling on the show.”
Bluford agreed, “People want to be seen. … It’s important for healing, not just for me in the BIPOC community that makes the show and the BIPOC community here in Utah, but the issues are universal.”
He said he’s enjoying the process of putting the show together, but admitted it rarely happens and “you never know if something like this will ever happen to you again.”
The Lifespan of a Black Show
Being there for the first rehearsals of the production, you can feel the magic that happens when everyone comes together and there is a sense of community in the room.
After the “be here” breathing exercise, Underwood speaks to the cast — addressing each as “my friend.” An actor has sustained a minor injury and Underwood takes the time to address it and asks what he would like to do in rehearsal that day. Underwood, the rest of the cast, and the actor adjust accordingly.
It’s a workshop environment within the small but mighty SLAC stage. Underwood provides guidance on the actors’ methods, but also takes time to ask questions. Some ask about specific scenes and how to approach them.
“This show reveals more depth and layers every day,” he explains. “Sometimes it’s overwhelming how much it unlocks.”
Having an all-black production isn’t just a novelty in Utah. Lee Palmer, who plays the narrator and has been in theaters for nearly five decades, said it’s rare for the art world at large.
Palmer, who is originally from near Chicago, said it’s the third all-Black production he’s been involved with. Underwood said it was his second and it was a first for both Cameron and Bluford.
“Black shows don’t have long lives on Broadway,” Palmer said. “But they have a very long life, usually in the touring community because people come to support them when they know there’s black people there, especially.”
As the audience follows Youth’s journey, they meet his mother, played by Utah actor and jazz 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 — playing everything from a Baptist congregation to accented transcontinental friends.
“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 the facets of being black and addresses themes such as “passing strange” and “black enough”.
It also explores themes of religion and finding one’s spiritual path away from one’s parents—something that might resonate with many who grew up in Utah. (Appropriately, the building that SLAC calls home, 168 W. 500 North in the Marmalade neighborhood of Salt Lake City, was built in 1896 as a place of worship for the 19th congregation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.)
The youth longs to escape the suffocating church fellowship his mother binds him into. For Underwood, who grew up in the Baptist church, that resonates.
The iconic church scenes are infused with essences of black culture, like paper fans used in musical numbers — a nod, Underwood said, to the fact that many black churches didn’t have air conditioning, so people used paper fans to keep cool.
When asked about possible connections to Utah’s religious culture, Underwood (who is a transplant) said he enjoys the production because it shows the good and bad of being in a church community.
“There are loving, caring people out there who really want the youth, the young people of the Church, to rise and excel,” he said. “Then the other side of that is the hypocrisy of sometimes shutting off outsiders or calming down a question.”
SLAC’s adaptation doesn’t strictly adhere to the originally produced musical, but that’s best of all, because the way Underwood and the cast created it sets it apart from itself, a unique but nodding homage to the original. It’s a positive story that redefines the narrative of what Black people’s experience can be without fear of acknowledging the reality of those experiences.
“Come and see how other people in the world are living, come and see their experiences, come and see their pain, come and see their joy,” Underwood said. “We are more alike than we think, but we are different and those differences are wonderful and should be appreciated and honored.”
In short, “Passing Strange” is a triumph waiting to happen – joyful, healing and mind-blowing. SLAC’s production recognizes the value of being represented in the media. For those growing up with artistic dreams and aspiring to careers in the industry, this is a sign it can happen.
“The thing is, there are so many different beautiful people that live here that are in the black community here in Utah that don’t get an opportunity to exist on stage, fully — loud, taking up space, taking up surroundings, and just being be,” Cameron said. “This piece allows us all to do that.”
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