PLAYBILL VIP SPOTLIGHT: New York City High School Is First to Stage Rock Musical Passing Strange

By Adam Hetrick
08 May 2014

Heidi Rodwald and Stew

Over the past year students at Beacon have developed a near obsessive passion for the musical and Stew's band The Negro Problem, as well as the Spike Lee documentary film that captured the musical late in its Broadway run.

"They see so much of themselves in the Youth’s journey, so the material itself is like a talisman for them. They are looking for 'the real,' seeking their parents' support of their creative ambitions, trying to find themselves in a maze of mistakes. I think they trust that if Stew could get through it okay – they might, too."

The school production, which expands the cast past its original core of seven actors, incorporates students of various cultural backgrounds and ethnicities. With the exception of several on-stage musicians, the original Broadway production of Passing Strange featured an all-black cast. For Cimato, reframing the story through a multi-cultural lense is what the journey central to Passing Strange is all about.



"There are some theatrical elements that read quite differently with mixed-race casting," Cimato observed. "There is also something to be said for the diversity in the Beacon population. We're all passing for something, and that is part of the magic of the show and the questions it raises."

The cast heralds from various backgrounds including Italian, Brazilian, African-American, Caucasian and Filipino. Cimato noted that the casting choices purposefully play with the audience's preconceived notions of the physical manifestation of race and cultural heritage.

"Who has a white grandparent? Who's a quarter Filipino? Who's passing for white? Who's passing for black? Passing Strange taught us all a lot about learning and owning your history and 'wearing it like a gown,'" Cimato explained. "We wanted the audience to be part of that discussion so we cast an ensemble of storytellers that came in as many different packages as we could find."

B'DAT's production has the blessing of Stew and Rodewald, who attended a recent rehearsal and participated in a Q&A session with the cast. The writers and students spoke about which the characters and events in the play were true, as well as the cultural philosophy of Berlin, the punk rock scene there and how writing songs turns into writing plays – in addition to the shortcomings of the SAT as an accurate gauge of a high schooler's intelligence.

The creators didn't give notes on the production or performance, but Stew did offer words that resonated with the cast. "I don’t think I’ve ever met someone that ever said, 'Gee I wish I stopped making art!,'" he told them. "That hit them like a train," Cimato recalled. "A few of the students actually went home, sat their parents down, and started seriously talking about going to art school."

The B'DAT cast of Passing Strange features Dazay Burnett, Justin Armstrong, Merlixse Ventura, Shamaar Samuel, Nico Esquilin, Willa Grace Moore, Sarah Kristen Vasquez, Christopher Gambino, Julia Gilban Cohen, Caleb Featherstone, Lilly Capstick, Jack Strosser, Lexis Harris, Azali Cyril, Khadeedja Muheto, Molly Dore, Sonia Bloom, Luke Branam-Wenger, Roberto Colon, Shahob Newman, Nkosi Wyands, Khadeedja Muheto, Shamaar Samuel, Nico Esquilin, Molly Dore, Michaella Esteves and Christopher Gambino.

Passing Strange will be staged May 8, 9 and 10; as well as May 15, 16 and 17. Admission is $10 to the general public, $8 for students. For ticket reservations and availability, contact the B'DAT Box Office at bdat@beaconschool.org. The Beacon School is located at 227 West 61st Street.