Stew is a very talented and spunky African-American singer and songwriter who received the 2008 Tony Award for "Best Book of a Musical." He wrote the book and the lyrics, co-composed the music, and performed on stage in Passing Strange, which he calls "a semi-autobiographical Broadway rock musical." The other members of his band are Heidi Rodewald, who co-wrote and co-orchestrated the music with Stew, Christian Cassan, Christian Gibbs, and Jon Spurney.
Here is the journey of an artist as a young man on a quest for the real that takes him from the streets of Los Angeles to Amsterdam and Berlin and then home again. It is the perfect vehicle for director Spike Lee who has a special interest in creative and daring explorations of the African-American experience. He has fashioned a consistently interesting film that is animated by kick-out-the-jams rock music and a fascination with the artist as an outsider who must find his own voice and best means of personal expression.
Stew (Daniel Breaker) grows up during the mid-1970's in middle-class Los Angeles with his mother (Eisa Davis) who has high hopes for him. She takes him to church even though he's a wannabe Zen Buddhist. There he has an epiphany that changes his life "the organ whispered a promise" and Stew knows instantly that his calling is to make music and find the best way of expressing himself as an artist. His mother sees the world in a very different way than her son: "Don't you know the difference between the sacred and the profane?" Stew joins the choir and is befriended by Mr. Franklin (Colman Domingo), the pastor's rebellious son who in a private meeting with the young man (where they smoke dope together) advises him to follow in the spirit of James Baldwin and others who went to Europe to find themselves and release their creativity. "I mean, baby, we're all freaks depending on the backdrop," Mr. Franklin tells Stew.
In the hash coffeehouses of Amsterdam, the expatriate finds companions who stretch him in new directions. At first, he finds the sex and drug culture of the city to be liberating but that wears off. Stew moves on to Berlin where he hooks up with a group of anarchists who live in Nowhaus, a commune of artists and bohemians. One of the most surprising moments for him happens when he refuses his mother's request for him to come home to be with her for Christmas, only to discover that other rebels in the commune are all going to visit their relatives for the holidays.
Passing Strange vividly conveys the different roles we play as we search for the Real and try to understand and appreciate ourselves. One of the dangers of such a quest is self-absorption that can hinder us from appreciating and reciprocating the love of others. Stew certainly exemplifies this stumbling block in his antagonistic relationship with his mother.
Mention must be made of the lively and convincing performances by de'Adre Aziza and Rebecca Naomi Jones who play a variety of women characters who pass through Stew’s life and contribute in their own special ways to the eventually blooming of his artistic talent.