Editor’s note: This is the first in a new TheaterJones series called Artist to Artist, in which local artists will interview their peers—actors, directors, designers, choreographers, composers, musicians, conductors, dancers, etc. In our first Artist to Artist, actor Justin Lemieux chats with Calvin Scott Roberts, who is playing the Narrator in the area premiere of the musical Passing Strange at Theatre Three. If you have suggestions for future Artist to Artist interviews, email editor Mark Lowry at email@example.com.
Dallas — Passing Strange, the hard-to-categorize musical, opens tonight at Theatre Three. I was excited to sit down for a conversation with Calvin Scott Roberts, who plays the Narrator. That role was originally played by rock musician Stew, who also wrote the lyrics and book for the show, and co-wrote the music with Heidi Rodewald. He also won the 2008 Tony for Best Book and the show was nominated for Best Musical (it was bested by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical, In the Heights). During the Broadway run, Spike Lee filmed a performance for an HBO film.
Roberts discussed working on this unique theatrical experience and what it’s like to play a meta-character.
Justin Lemieux: In the original production, the narrator, who you play, was played by Stew, who also wrote the show. And since the show is semi-autobiographical he was basically playing himself. So how do you approach that character? Who are you actually playing?
Calvin Scott Roberts: I posed the question to our director, vickie washington, am I playing Stew or am I playing Calvin? And she described him as an Everyman or specifically, Everyman Black. I took that to mean I’m not playing Calvin, I’m not playing Stew, I’m playing the Narrator who happens to be named Stew and these just happen to be his experiences. He is the Youth, it’s his story but I have to say it could also be up to interpretation.
Since it’s a rock show and you have a musical theater background was that something you tried to focus on to bring to the role?
In the auditions I just tried to do what I know I can do. I’m going to sing how I’m going to sing and I’m going to focus more on the acting aspect of it and the storytelling aspect of it.
With typical characters, you have your normal actor homework stuff you can rely on: objectives, obstacles, etc. So, how do you approach the challenge of playing a narrator?
My first big thing was to decide who I was telling the story to. Even though I’m telling it to the audience I’m telling it to someone very specific. There’s a part of me that still believes in magic like you do when you’re a kid, so this time I’m telling the story I hope it might turn out differently.
On the heels of the Oscars, I can’t help but draw comparisons in my head between Passing Strange and Moonlight. Both have casts that are entirely African-American and seem to tell the story of a young black man that is both surprising and specific, in a way that makes you think, “I’ve not seen this story,” or at least not seen it told in this way. Was this something that was discussed in rehearsals?
We’re all African-American so it’s something we all know and have experienced. We talked about it at the beginning but it is just there. But the specificity that’s happening is outstanding. I think that’s what’s really important about the piece. In the canon of theater we don’t often get to tell the fullness of our story and the different colors and the different versions. There’s always very specific types of shows that are done and produced. But we don’t often get the opportunity to tell it this way. I would look at it as these experiences are just experiences they just happen to have on black glasses.
The other day vickie and I discussed a GQ interview with [Oscar winner] Mahershala Ali and his character in Moonlight. On the surface he’s a drug dealer and so these other things must be true. But they wanted it to be more. That’s like Passing Strange it’s a three-dimensional black experience. Eight out of ten times if it’s a black show it’s going to involve these topics. What Passing Strange brings is the other side of it. So, you get to see those things but you see the other side. So here’s a black kid who chooses rock music instead of R&B and there are those versions of us that exist in the world. We’re not just A and B. There’s also X,Y and Z—and you get a taste of that.
So if you had to sum up what the show is about?
I watched a lot of interviews with Stew and he said it’s about teenage angst. Specifically, it’s about black teenage angst. And everyone can identify with teenage angst, this is just how a black person would identify with it. It’s also about finding yourself within the box and then existing outside it. I think we as persons of color, or any marginalized people, think that we exist as a whole within our box. What’s happening in Passing Strange is a young man who discovers he exists in a box and decides he wants to live outside it.
Has there been any surprises about the process?
This what I think audiences will find surprising. I don’t feel like I’m working at Theatre Three. I had a moment in rehearsal we were doing a cue to cue and I was just looking out on the set with the lights and everything and I thought, wow. I’ve performed in this space numerous times and I don’t feel like I’m in that space right now. And that makes me excited. It might be because vickie and the production team have created this immersive experience for us. It sort of felt like I was in a mini stadium and I was about to do a concert. And I’ve never felt that before. It doesn’t feel like another show here, it feels completely different and that’s awesome. And I think that's what audiences are going to take from it to. This is a new thing at Theatre Three.
What do you want people to know about the show?
I would just encourage everyone who reads this interview to come and see this show. It's important on so many levels. And with the direction that the country’s going, the community’s going in, the arts in general, even though this show is a few years old, it's a huge step forward in the type of work we can be producing and the type of opportunities that are out there for everyone. You know, I often hear people say as a black actor in this town especially with musicals, “Oh, we can’t do such and such show because there aren’t enough black people to do that show,” and I will say to you, come and see Passing Strange because there are seven of us on that stage who are singing and acting our faces off and three times as many showed up to audition.
I also want to say that it's been a blessing working with vickie washington on this project. The other day I asked her what her preferred acting method was. We talked about it a little and then later I got an email saying her preferred acting method is the method of specificity. Which I love. Vickie’s all about specificity. She’s all about The Real, she’s all about the truth, she’s all about doing the homework and asking the questions to keep us on our toes. And I think that’s a very important thing to have in a director because ultimately that’s going to help us tell the story and give the audience the best and it keeps you active.
Stew has talked about developing this show, he wanted it to be more like a rock concert than a traditional theatrical experience. Has that carried through to this production?
Yes. vickie’s vision from the beginning has that she wants it to be like a rock concert. And I think we’ve captured that. It’s one of the goals that the audience feels that way when they leave. It’s gonna be loud. We want it to be loud so if you have ear plugs please bring them.
» Justin Lemieux is an actor who has appeared at Dallas Theater Center, Amphibian Stage Productions, Circle Theatre, Trinity Shakespeare Festival, Shakespeare in the Bar and other theaters. He'll next appear in the world premiere of The Trap at Amphibian Stage Productions, and in the fall will perform his solo show Warm Soda at New York's United Solo Festival. His wife, Katy Lemieux, is a TheaterJones contributor.