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PASSING STRANGE at Ujima’s new space is what “ensemble” is all about

PASSING STRANGE, the 2008 musical with Tony Award winning book by “Stew” (Mark Stewart) and music by Heidi Rodewald, directed by Lorna C. Hill, runs through May 26, Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at both 2 and 7, and Sunday at 4, presented by Ujima Company at their new home base, 429 Plymouth Avenue (the old School 77) (281-0092) Runtime: A little over two hours with one intermission. Note: contains adult language and themes.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH: From the Ujima website, PASSING STRANGE is: “The story of a young black man’s migration from America to Europe, and subsequent coming of age as an artist –  Part rock, funk, and blues performance – part theatrical production – the narrator ‘Stew’ recounts his youth growing up in middle class 1970s Los Angeles, rooted in the black church, before crossing the ocean to live in Amsterdam and then Berlin where he discovers new perspectives on blackness, questions of responsibility, and figuring out how to become someone who was always just beyond his grasp.” As Stew himself told NPR:

“It’s … about the costs of being a young artist. It’s a 46-year-old guy looking back at the things that he did and the values he had in his 20s, sort of when you’re making that decision to really be an artist.”

Tianna Livingston
Brian Brown

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: This highly entertaining musical opened too late (May 3) to be nominated this year for an Artie Award, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it appear next year as a nominee in the category: “Outstanding Ensemble of a Musical.” And it is an ensemble piece with 100% commitment by all involved. Anchored by a very tight combo (Michelle Thomas, keyboard and Music Director), Jerry Livingston, bass guitar, Preston Brown, drums, and Tony Genovese, guitar the music is not “rock” per se, but a blend of musical genres that just keeps morphing from one style/song to the next.

Also anchoring the evening is the Narrator, played by Preach Freedom, with a whiskey baritone and a style smoothed out by years of performances. Think back to the first time you ever saw Denzel Washington walk in front of a camera and you thought “oh my!” That’s the level of sexy-cool that Preach Freedom brings. The narrator is the personification of the 46-year-old, grown up “Stew.” The young “Stew” is played with the same style, but of course younger moves, by Brian Brown, who plays a man in his 20s.

Augustus Donaldson

And the other 14 roles are taken on with gusto by five actors: Augustus Donaldson, Jacqueline Cherry, Tianna Livingston, London Lee, and Zoë V. Scruggs who portray everyone else in “Stew’s” life during the late 1970s to the early 1980s. The choreography by Naila Ansari is convincing and very well executed. And anytime actors stay in character and there’s no doubt as to their motivation, that’s when you thank the director, in this case the founder of Ujima Company – Lorna C. Hill.

Speaking of Lorna C. Hill, I felt her no-nonsense presence when I went to buy my tickets. Can a website reflect the personality of “the boss?” It does here. I liked the website ticketing system a lot. I got to pick my own seats, and print my own tickets, and there was never any doubt as to the process. That’s not the case with a number of other theaters where the best you can do is leave a message on an answering machine and hope.

Of course, I have to have one quibble. The theater is three quarters in the round with brand new seating that is attractive, and comfortable, and with a nice rake so that everyone gets a good view, but unfortunately the seats are attached in such a way that whenever anyone in our row shifted, we all went for a little ride. I’m hoping that gets attended to over the summer.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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