An all-Black musical that ‘transcends magic’ finally makes its Utah debut

“Passing Strange,” a genre-defying production that has some roots in Utah, debuts at Salt Lake Acting Company.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The cast of Salt Lake Acting Company's "Passing Strange," l-r Carleton Bluford, Brian Kinnard, Jamal A. Shuriah and Lee Palmer, rehearse Mar. 14, 2022. The rock musical, which debuted on Broadway in 2008, makes its Utah premiere from April 6 through May 15, 2022.

Todd Underwood starts rehearsal by leading his cast in a breathing exercise and a simple instruction: “Be here.”

For the Black actors and creative team — including Underwood, the director — staging the genre-crossing musical “Passing Strange” at 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 have never in my life seen myself represented on stage as a person who grew up in Utah, loves rock music, loves punk music, and loves all the things that people in Utah don’t get that come from Black culture,” said Latoya Cameron, who is member of the ensemble for “Passing Strange,” who says being part of this production is “everything.”

SLAC’s production of “Passing Strange” runs 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 writing the lyrics and book, all created in collaboration with Annie Dorsen.

The story tells of a Black artist named Youth, and his journey of self-discovery. Its songs move from rock to gospel to punk, stretching the notions of what a stage musical can be.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) l-r Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin and Carleton Bluford of Salt Lake Acting Company's upcoming production of "Passing Strange," rehearse Mar. 14, 2022. The rock musical, which debuted on Broadway in 2008, makes its Utah premiere from April 6 through May 15, 2022.

The musical spent some of its formative time in Utah, when it was workshopped at both the Sundance Filmmakers Lab and the Sundance Institute’s Theater Lab. After productions in Berkeley, Calif., and off-Broadway, it premiered on Broadway in 2008. A year later, a filmed version of the Broadway production, directed by Spike Lee, premiered in Park City at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

Cameron, who is also SLAC’s equity, diversity and inclusion dramaturg, said she first saw a snippet of “Passing Strange” on the 2008 Tony Awards — and finally saw the full show when Lee’s film aired on PBS in 2009.

Seeing the show, full of powerful Black women yelling and breaking things, “literally gave me the permission to exist in this world as myself without being apologetic for the kinds of things that I like as just a human being and as a Black woman.”

Her love for the musical is one reason she connected 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 SLAC’s production.

‘Passing Strange’ at SLAC

The musical “Passing Strange,” produced by Salt Lake Acting Company.

Where • Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City.

When • Runs April 6 to May 15.

Tickets • Available at saltlakeactingcompany.org.

What it’s like being a BIPOC artist in Utah

Cameron and Bluford tried, more than a decade ago, to pitch the production to theater companies in Utah — with no success.

“I remember a specific meeting that we had with some folks, and [when] we sat down with them, it was like they were there physically, but they weren’t listening,” Cameron said.

Bluford described it as a numbers game. Back then, he said, he and Cameron were told that there wasn’t enough Black talent in Utah to produce the show, or not enough people who would come to watch it.

It’s an “unfortunate” experience a lot of BIPOC artists in the community go through, Cameron said: “Being shut down before they’re even heard.”

They tried to do it themselves, either raising funds or starting their own theater company, but it never panned out.

Still, both say that timing is everything, and it feels right to be doing this production — for which they both auditioned — at this particular time.

“I think it’s even more magical now, because of where we are as artists — and as Black artists are not allowing other influences to mute us anymore,” Cameron said. “We’re amplifying not only ourselves, but each other, to stand in our excellence, in our glory. And that, to me, it transcends magic. It’s revolutionary. It’s liberating.”

Bluford said he feels like after a long journey, he’s just now “coming into fruition of trying to figure out where I am, who I am, and where I sit — especially in Utah.”

Growing up in Utah, he said, “I’ve always felt a lot of expectations to be a certain way around everyone.” Like Youth, Bluford said he has battled the same things and is “trying to find a voice in a place where everyone wants to put a voice on him.” Also, like Youth, part of Bluford’s story involves leaving Los Angeles.

That’s one of the many ways the cast and crew of SLAC’s production see themselves mirrored in Youth’s journey.

Underwood said “the journey to find one’s Blackness and how that shows up in the rest of the world” — something that aligns with his own life — attracted him to directing the production.

“It feels like a piece that should be heard and seen,” he said, “and I felt like I could lend some type of artistry 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’s doing the show and the BIPOC community here in Utah, but the themes are universal.”

He said he’s enjoying the process of putting the show together, but admitted it is rare and “you never know if something like this will ever happen to you again.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cast members of Salt Lake Acting Company's "Passing Strange," Carleton Bluford, left, and Kandyce Marie, right, rehearse Mar. 14, 2022. The rock musical, which debuted on Broadway in 2008, makes its Utah premiere from April 6 through May 15, 2022.

The lifespan of a Black show

Sitting in on the production’s first rehearsals, one can feel the magic that happens when everyone gets together and a sense of community builds in the room.

After the “be here” breathing exercise, Underwood talks to the actors — addressing each as “my friend.” One actor has suffered a slight injury, and Underwood takes the time to address this, asking what he’s comfortable doing in that day’s rehearsal. Underwood, the rest of the cast and the actor adjust accordingly.

It’s a workshop environment, within SLAC’s small but mighty stage. Underwood provides notes on the actors’ methods, but also makes time for them to ask questions. Some do 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 it unlocks.”

Having an all-Black production isn’t just a novelty in Utah. Lee Palmer, who plays the narrator and has been in theater for nearly five decades, said it’s rare for the arts world overall.

Palmer, who’s originally from just outside Chicago, said it’s the third all-Black production in which he’s ever been involved. Underwood said it’s his second, and it’s a first for both 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 folks will come out to support it if they know it’s there Black folks, especially.”

As the audience follows Youth’s journey, they meet his mother, played by Utah actor and jazz vocalist 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 — that plays everything from a Baptist church congregation to transcontinental friends with accents.

“This is the kind of piece you live for in this business,” Palmer said.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Actor Lee Palmer, left, and Carleton Bluford, right, of Salt Lake Acting Company's "Passing Strange," rehearse Mar. 14, 2022. The rock musical, which debuted on Broadway in 2008, makes its Utah premiere from April 6 through May 15, 2022.

‘We are more alike than we think’

The story of “Passing Strange” confronts facets of being Black, addressing themes like what it means to be “passing” and “Black enough.”

It also tackles themes of religion, and finding one’s own spiritual path apart from one’s parents — something that may resonate with many raised in Utah. (Fittingly, the building that SLAC calls home, at 168 W. 500 North in the Marmalade neighborhood of Salt Lake City, was built in 1896 as house of worship for the 19th Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.)

Youth longs to escape from the stifling church community in which his mother has him involved. For Underwood, who grew up in the Baptist church, that resonates.

The iconic church scenes are punctuated 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 conditioners, so people used paper fans to stay cool.

When asked about possible connections to Utah’s religious culture, Underwood said that he enjoys the production because it shows the good and bad of being in a church community.

“There are loving, caring people there who really want to see the youth, the young people of the church, to rise and to excel,” he said. “Then the other side of that is the hypocrisy of it sometimes shutting down outsiders or quieting a question.”

SLAC’s adaptation doesn’t adhere strictly to the musical as originally produced, but that’s for the best, because the way Underwood and the cast have crafted it makes it stand out on its own, a unique but nodding homage to the original. It’s a positive story that redefines the narrative about what the Black experience can be, while not being afraid to acknowledge the reality of those experiences.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The cast and crew of Salt Lake Acting Company's upcoming production of "Passing Strange," rehearse Mar. 14, 2022. The rock musical, which debuted on Broadway in 2008, makes its Utah premiere from April 6 through May 15, 2022.

“Come see how the 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 waiting to happen — joyous, healing and dazzling. SLAC’s production recognizes the value of seeing oneself represented in media. For those who grow up with arts dreams and seeking careers in the industry, it’s a sign that it can happen.

“The thing is that there’s so many different beautiful humans that live here, who are within the Black community here in Utah, that do not get opportunities to be able to exist on stage, fully — out loud, taking up space, taking up environments and just being,” Cameron said. “This play allows all of us to do that.”

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