“Culture is not extra.” Stew, Politics, Art

Spike Lee to Film Tony Award-Winning Musical “Passing Strange” as Show Comes to a Close on Broadway

The rock musical Passing Strange closes on Sunday after a six-month run on Broadway. The show won a Tony Award for best book. It was co-written by its star, longtime recording artist Stew and Heidi Rodewald. It was nominated for six other Tony’s including best musical. Acclaimed filmmaker Spike Lee is planning to film the musical this weekend to bring it to a wider audience. We speak to Stew, the playwright, composer and narrator of Passing Strange.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, as we turn now to the world of culture, the rock musical Passing Strange closes on Sunday after a six-month run on Broadway. The show won a Tony Award for best book. It was co-written by its star, longtime recording artist Stew and Heidi Rodewald. It was nominated for six other Tonys including best musical.

Passing Stange was first commissioned by the Public Theater of New York, premiered at the Berkeley Repertory Theater, and is now a hit show on Broadway. The last performance takes place at the Belasco Theatre on Sunday, but that won’t be the last time audiences get to enjoy the show. The acclaimed filmmaker Spike Lee is planning to film the musical this weekend to bring it to a wider audience. Speaking at a press conference earlier this month Spike Lee described why he wanted to film the play.

    SPIKE LEE: As a filmmaker, for me, the greatest artists are musicians. I know there are painters and sculptors and novelists, and what not. But for me, musicians are the greatest artists on this earth, because I feel the talents they have come directly from God, and I really feel that. And when I saw the play at the Public, I was knocked out. And I came back a second time with Wesley Snipes, and I go, “You gotta see this!” And the story—the story, the musicianship, the acting, it was a revelation.

AMY GOODMAN: I spoke to Stew, the playwright, composer, narrator of Passing Strange, last week. The play tells the moving and also very funny story of a young man in search of himself, his quest for “the real”, as he goes from his home in South Central Los Angeles to Amsterdam and Berlin. I asked Stew to talk about how closely the play mirrors his own life.

    • JAMES BALDWIN: The best thing I ever did in my life, I think, was, in effect, to flee America and go to Paris in 1948. And it gave me time to vomit up a great deal, a great deal of bitterness. At least I could operate in Paris without being menaced socially. No one cared what I did. I was very lucky. The first thing I realized in Paris was that you don’t ever leave home. You take your home with you. You better. You know, otherwise, you’re homeless. It’s very significant. The first thing I wrote in Paris, once I caught my breath, was “Everybody’s Protest Novel”, you know, to get that behind me and to find out what I could really do, you know, if I really was a writer instead of a pamphleteer.
      [excerpt of Passing Strange]
  • STEW: It started off autobiographical, but I learned pretty quick that, you know, nobody’s life is that interesting. You know, you have to kind of lie a little bit to tell the truth sometimes. I know that sounds like politics, but in art it’s safer to lie, and nobody gets hurt. So, yeah, I sort of had to tell—I wanted to tell a larger truth and that was beyond just my story, because it wasn’t about me, really. It’s about people, I think, seeking their own identity and the ways—especially in the case of black Americans, a lot of black expatriates.

    I grew up with these myths—they were truths and myths—about how you go to Europe, and you’ll be treated more like a human being, you’ll be able to be treated more like an artist. You know, you’ll be able to have your own sort of like—find your own identity. You know, I grew up with these things—Baldwin, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, you know, jazz musicians, you know, Josephine Baker. I grew up with all those stories, and those stories were a large reason why I went to Europe.

    AMY GOODMAN: James Baldwin also went to Europe.

    STEW: Yeah, he’s like the patron saint of this play, really.

    AMY GOODMAN: I want to play a clip of James Baldwin.
    AMY GOODMAN: You say James Baldwin was the patron saint of your play, of Passing Strange. What do you mean?

    STEW: He was really the first sort of voice that I heard, you know, like even as a teenager, that was sort of like calling, you know, saying Europe was the place to go for a black man to realize his, you know, dreams of having his own identity, of being accepted as an artist, of being accepted even as a human being. You know, so he was really the first. And, you know, he wrote so eloquently about it, you couldn’t help but feel that it was true, you know.

    He also, however, wrote about some of the darker sides, as well, you know, because as a black man, for instance, in France, he was able to see how Arabs were treated in Paris. A lot of people weren’t really—they just said, “Oh, it’s a wonderland for black people, so just go there, and you’ll be accepted.” But he might have been accepted, but he also saw how Arabs in Paris were treated, and he knew something about that, that, you know, other people there didn’t know, didn’t see, you know.

    AMY GOODMAN: So if this autobiographical fiction is true, this part of it, where you start in South Central, and you go to Norway and then to Germany, then to Berlin, what was that like for you?

    STEW: It was everything and more that you see in the play, really. I mean, it was actually a—

    AMY GOODMAN: I mean, Amsterdam.

    STEW: Amsterdam, yeah, yeah. It was everything and more, really, I mean, that you see in the play. It was—a lot of it was true. You know, I mean, a lot of the things that people like Baldwin were saying about it being a place where you were accepted more as a human being and maybe not as a race, a lot of that was actually true, you know. But, again, no place is perfect, you know. And I think the problem with this sort of expatriate myth was you had a lot of people going to Europe thinking everything’s just going to be great and fine there, and then you find that there’s racism everywhere, you know, that there’s objectification everywhere, you know, that there’s people trying to put you in a box everywhere. And what happens in the play is that the kid actually starts playing to some of these very stereotypes that he tried to escape.

    AMY GOODMAN: Well, this is Stew’s Passing Strange.
    AMY GOODMAN: Passing Strange. What’s it like to see that, to listen, and to perform there on a Broadway stage from the Public Theater?

    STEW: It’s actually not that different. Audiences, we have found, actually were not that different. Audiences are audiences. I mean, you know, we come out, we do our show. It’s different every night. It’s spontaneous. It’s not a canned sort of, you know, by-the-books kind of musical. So we—Broadway is more like this sort of like mass sort of like social experiment for us. You know, off Broadway, things were more like this little club, you know, of insiders. Broadway is more about just like sort of mass social experiment.

    And the play was an experiment to see if it would work. I went to Broadway, really, to see what would happen. I didn’t go there because I wanted to go there or because that was my goal. It was absolutely not my goal. My goal was really to see if we could bring this weird little political, sexual, idea-filled play to this mass audience and see, you know, what would happen every night, you know. And we’ve learned—I’ve learned more as a performer and as a writer from being on that stage in the five months that I’ve done it than I have in my entire life. You know, it’s just been incredible.

    AMY GOODMAN: You talk about it being a sexual play. In fact, you performed one of your songs for the Tonys, but not the song you intended to.

    STEW: Right. Well, there was a Tony preview show, and we have a song called “We Just Had Sex,” and the song is about as—one of our artistic directors said the song is about as risqué as an episode of Three’s Company—actually, less risqué than an episode of Three’s Company, but just because it had the word “sex” in it, they thought it would be inappropriate, which of course is completely absurd, because those CBS, ABC kind of stations have all manner of wild sex-oriented shows, you know, exploitive shows, you know, and of course it’s OK for them to show. Our song is completely innocent. I mean, a child could read the lyrics. There’s nothing—there’s no reference to anything that any teenager watching TV would be freaked out by, you know.

    AMY GOODMAN: And what do you want to convey to teenagers about sexuality? You have a sixteen-year-old daughter?

    STEW: I have a sixteen-year-old, yeah. Yeah, I have to admit that I’ve been thinking about this a lot. And the mentality, I think, that really informs me is more of a European mentality. My sixteen-year-old is far more mature about a lot of these issues than a lot of twenty-five-year-old Americans I know. Do you know what I mean? And it’s not because she’s a special person. It’s because the education system that they have, it’s just simple. It’s just like sex is not this thing that people are terrified of. It’s something you need to be informed about, in the same way that she, when she was ten years old, was, you know, having a cookies and lemonade drive for orphans in Afghanistan, because the idea is that there, politics, sex are—all these things are at least on the table, you know. You know, I’m not saying the people, the Europeans themselves, are better than us. But the issues are just on the table. They’re a part of everyday life.

    You know, how you approach those issues is your business. But I want, you know, art, sex, politics to be everyday things that people engage in and that people know affect their lives, as opposed to these things that we just kind of whisper about. Or, you know, “We’re at work now, so we can’t say who we voted for, we can’t talk about who”—that’s insane. That’s just crazy.

    AMY GOODMAN: You say James Baldwin was a patron saint. Sexuality, race—these were the core issues of his writing, of his books. What do you think we have to learn from James Baldwin, from Richard Wright? What are you trying to convey?

    STEW: I wrote this play—this play was inspired by one person, and that’s our president, George Bush. I wrote this play, because when I found out that he had never been to Europe until he became president, I thought, a guy who actually owns planes who never went outside of his own country, who never went to Europe. When I was sixteen years old, all I wanted to do was—I was curious about the whole world. And I think that incuriosity that Bush and people like him have informs our foreign policy, informs our politics, informs the way we see the world—that incuriosity, that idea that we just live here in this tiny little box, and these are the rules in this little box, you know.

    And when I found out that he had never been to Europe, you know, that was the inspiration, really, to write Passing Strange, because I was comparing my curiosity about the world, my hunger to know about the world, to him, who had the world at his feet, you know, and could hop into his dad’s plane and go anywhere he want, and he never did. And I thought, why didn’t he—you know, why was I so hungry to go to Europe, and why was he not? You know. And that really was the inspiration for the play. I’m not joking when I say he was. He really was. When I found out that fact, I knew what I wanted to write about immediately. I wanted to write about curiosity, about travel, about thinking outside of your little neighborhood, your neighborhood of a country, you know.

    AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned the show is closing.

    STEW: Yeah.

    AMY GOODMAN: Why is that happening? You just won a Tony.

    STEW: That would be a question you could probably ask the producers better than me. Broadway is like a—it’s a money machine. It’s not like when—when you’re off Broadway, you have a subscribership. They come to see the play for two months, and then everybody leaves, and the play closes when it’s supposed to close, and that’s fine, you know. Broadway is a profit-oriented world. It’s a business.

    AMY GOODMAN: Did your play change?

    STEW: No.

    AMY GOODMAN: Were you forced to change anything?

    STEW: No, no, not at all. Not at all.

    AMY GOODMAN: If you hadn’t been Stew, would you have changed? Was there pressure to change?

    STEW: Of course there was pressure to change. No, we fought every single note that we got.

    AMY GOODMAN: What did they want changed?

    STEW: I think people—I think people wanted ultimately a more accessible play. I mean, I could give you a list of things, you know.

    AMY GOODMAN: Like?

    STEW: Well, I can’t—one thing I can’t tell you, because it has to do with the ending and I don’t want to give the ending away, but I can guarantee you that they, you know, wanted things that other plays have, other musicals have, you know, the big closer at the end of the first act. Our play, the first act ends on a very somber note. You don’t do that in musical theater. You absolutely do not do that. You’re supposed to end like this, and everybody comes to the front of the stage and goes “Waaah!” You know. And we don’t do that. We do the exact opposite of that.

    And there’s things—there are tons of things in the play. We make references to things and to people and historical events, and even we make references to modes of living that a lot of people in the audience might not understand.

    AMY GOODMAN: Like?

    STEW: Well, like the Autonomen, like anarchists who live in Berlin, you know, who live in the Kreuztberg area of Berlin, you know, people who—on Mayday, who throw rocks and Molotov cocktails at police. We knew that that subculture in Europe might not be really well known, but to take it out of the play would have been a lie, so we left it in and are leaving people to sort of figure it out for themselves, those who don’t know.

    And in other words, we don’t think it’s a sin to have something in a play that everybody doesn’t understand, whereas I guarantee you in most musicals, every single thing that happens on that stage is so simple and so watered down that they make sure that everybody will understand it. And to me, some ideas are worth maybe walking out of the theater and looking at and looking up on the web and going, what is an anarchist? You know, a lot of people in the crowd really don’t know what an anarchist is. A lot of people were like, “So why are they throwing rocks at the police? You know, what are they angry about?” You know, and—

    AMY GOODMAN: What is an anarchist to you?

    STEW: To me? Well, the people I lived with had very—they would even object to, like, definitions, because the people that I lived with in squatter houses in Berlin were really about, you know—they call themselves Autonomen, you know, which means like, you know, autonomous. And their thing was defining their own reality, not a reality from a book, defining their own political reality. Even some like—so certain squatted houses had their own way of thinking and behaving, and they might not have anything to do with the squatter house next door.

    AMY GOODMAN: Even the reference to squatted, explain.

    STEW: Well, yeah, yeah, OK. In Europe, you have—

    AMY GOODMAN: Here, too.

    STEW: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I don’t know much about the squatted house scene here, but in Europe you have people who have gone into buildings that were uninhabited and started to live there illegally, started to live there illegally. And in Europe, this has been something that’s been going on for quite a long time now, you know, and I lived in those—those are the places I lived when I first went to Europe. You know, as a musician, there was a network of these different squatted houses, and you would go there, and you would do shows there, and you would meet people and have parties there, and that was kind of my world, you know.

    And what was interesting about that to me was that these people were not—these people, their lives were political. It wasn’t like they were just sort of doing politics and then doing other things. Every second of their lives was defined by their beliefs. Their ideas informed their everyday lives, you know, which is—which was a huge influence on me as an artist, because it wasn’t like, “Well, I’m doing this 9:00 to 5:00, and then I go home and do this other thing.”

    AMY GOODMAN: Now, the show is closing here.

    STEW: Yeah.

    AMY GOODMAN: Although it’s also opening, in the sense that Spike Lee is going to make it accessible, then many more who could have fit into that theater…

    STEW: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, absolutely, absolutely.

    AMY GOODMAN: And where do you go from here?

    STEW: I am excited about working on my next projects, you know. Next projects, I mean, Heidi Rodewald is my musical collaborator. We want to make more records. We want to make another music theater piece. We have a film we want to make. We’re pretty backlogged now, because we didn’t think this Broadway thing would even happen. You know what I mean?

    AMY GOODMAN: By the way, were you a fan of musicals yourself?

    STEW: Not particularly, no. I’m from LA, so, I mean, you know, I don’t know. I didn’t know much about musicals. I had seen like two when I started writing this.

    AMY GOODMAN: And you talked about the pressures and standing up to them, saying, “No, I’m not going to change this.” So what do you have to say about young people about that?

    STEW: Oh, yeah. When I talk to schools, and they think that we’re—you know, like young theater students think we’re cool, because we said no, you know, and that we got this cool play on Broadway, which is kind of a miracle. But what I tell them is that the reality is that as much as I—it’s flattering to be looked at as some kind of hero in this respect, we said no, because we—I’m forty-six years old, and I’ve been saying no for my entire life. You know, I haven’t been making commercial music. I’ve never made art in order to make money. I’ve certainly never made art in order to make a profit.

    What I tell young people is that you are going to have to decide whether you want to say no forever, because when they hand you the money, the first thing they say—I mean, I heard these things—they will look at you and say, “This can be bad for your career. You know, don’t you want a career in this business?” You know, I’ve heard that. “Don’t you want a career in this business?” I mean, it’s just like in the movies. They say the same things that people say in the movies. They look at you, and they go, “Don’t you want a career in this business?”

    Now, if you’re twenty-three and someone says that to you, that’s going to terrify you. Me, at forty-six, it’s no big deal, because I’ve been underground all my life. You know, so this was just like a little—like I said, a little social experiment to go to Broadway and see what happens. It was fun to say no, because, like I said, I’ve been saying no all my life. But for a twenty-three-year-old to decide I’m going to say no and I’m not going to compromise, that’s a much bigger decision, and they have to really think about that. And I think if they say no, I think they’ll end up, you know, not hating themselves in the morning.

    AMY GOODMAN: And yet, there are—

    STEW: But they might not be as rich.

    AMY GOODMAN: There are things you said no to, and there are big ways that you have changed. It seems to me you’re talking about knowing when to compromise and knowing when not to, like just entering Europe the way you did.

    STEW: Right, right, right. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, there’s—you know, the thing about being an artist also, and the big lesson, like, what have I learned from being in Berlin versus America, it’s hard to be an artist here, because no one really thinks art is important here. Let’s face it. You spend two days in any European capital, and you will see that they take art more seriously than we do, you know.

    And the reason why I think we don’t take art seriously here is because art is always sort of an inherent kind of critique of society, because you’re seeing this one person’s point of view, and you’re saying the world wasn’t right and—the world wasn’t right, and I have to put this cup here to show you—that’s my critique, because this was empty first, and then I’m putting this here, and that’s my critique, that’s my point of view, that’s my art piece. And in some way, that’s political to me, you know. To me, art is inherently political, not political like left or right or center, political as in it’s a point of view that you are forcing on people and saying, “I want you to look at this. I want you to look at the world this way.”

    And I think, in some weird way, we don’t like that here. I don’t know if that’s because of the ancient sort of Puritan influence, where like artists just—sometimes I think Americans feel like, “Well, you know, there’s cows to milk, and there’s reruns to watch. Why do we want to—art’s not important. Art is this other thing. Art is extra for us, you know.”

    And culture is not extra. You know, I mean, the term “agriculture” and “culture” are etymologically connected. You know what I mean? Culture is not unnecessary. Culture isn’t extra. You know, culture is just as important as milking the cow, you know. And I think that when I’m in Berlin, I feel like my job, being an artist, is something I can say I do at the dinner table, and people don’t go, “Oh.” This is a—it’s just a job. It’s not an exalted thing. It’s not a glorified thing. I don’t think I’m better than anybody. I think it’s a job. And we say that in the play, that it’s a job like—songwriting is a job like any other. And that’s what I think.

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