March 2012
Capstone March 2012 Howard University  

Behind the Scenes of Passing Strange
New Department of Theatre Arts' production demonstrates the intricacies of staging musicals

By Jordan Duckens, intern, Office of University Communications
Alumnus Anthony Manough performs in the Department of Theatre Arts’ production of Passing Strange. (Justin D. Knight)
Just three weeks after the Howard Players production Our Lady of 121st Street opened, the Department of Theatre Arts is now presenting its spring musical Passing Strange.

Passing Strange, which opened Feb. 29 and runs through March 10 in Ira Aldridge Theatre, is a rock musical written by Mark Stewart. The musical follows a young African American named Youth on a journey of self-discovery that takes him from his hometown of Los Angeles to European cities such as Amsterdam and Berlin.

Unlike regular plays, though, musicals can sometimes pose unique challenges for those onstage and behind the scenes.

“You’re dealing with all the elements of live theatre, live musicians, actors, singing and it’s usually going to require some sort of choreography,” said Kim Bey, chair of the Department of Theatre Arts. “It gets a little more complicated than just a straight play.”

Aurie Ceylon, a senior acting major who plays the roles of Sherry, Renata and Desi in Passing Strange, believes that people have misconceptions about how difficult musicals are for actors.

“They think that it’s easy and you’re just kind of singing and dancing your way through it and the acting is limited or nonexistent, but it really is much more difficult than a straight play,” said Ceylon.
She believes the challenge lies in capturing the essence of the character while dancing and singing simultaneously. Galen Williams, a junior musical theatre major who plays the lead role of Youth in Passing Strange, agrees with her.
“With a musical, you have to make sure you’re in sync with the music, and you have to listen out for musical cues,” said Williams. “There are a lot of things you have to do at one time with a musical as opposed to focusing on one thing or focusing on less things with a play.” "The journey of self-discovery that Youth embarks upon in Passing Strange is not unfamiliar to most college students."

Njeri Johnson-Smalls, a junior theatre technology major, works as the production electrician for Passing Strange. She works closely with the lighting crew, setting cues for the show. For her, the challenge with the production lies in creating a more dramatic atmosphere than that of a traditional play.

“With a musical, you need to have something that makes it a bit more over the top,” said Johnson-Smalls. “You have things to make the audience feel like they’re in a concert environment as opposed to just watching it, so they become more involved in it.”

Passing Strange is not only unique because it is a musical, it is a rock musical written by an African American. These attributes prompted several theatre students to push for the staging of the musical, and because they also felt the message is universal and not exclusively specific to the Black experience.

“The characters could be Asian and the message could still get across,”
said Ceylon.

For example, the journey of self-discovery that Youth embarks upon in Passing Strange is not unfamiliar to most college students. Professor Bey believes Howard assists student performers in their own journey of self-discovery. Bey says the University provides students with the ability to ground themselves in their own identity.

“Acting, theatre, dance, any of those things is truly about a personal connection to who you are,”
Bey said.

According to Bey, without that connection, actors cannot truly ground themselves in their characters.

For Lauren Banks, a junior theatre arts major and president of Howard Players, the decision to develop her career at Howard was a simple choice. Because theatre departments develop their seasons around the majority of their students, Banks understood that at a majority institution there would be fewer roles for African-American students.

Aurie Ceylon (seated, center) prepares for her role in Passing Strange, with the assistance of Shakhura Henderson-Amare (doing Ceylon’s hair) and Briana Lott. (Justin D. Knight)
“It only made sense for me to get the most out of my experience and go to a historically Black institution,” said Banks. “When I got here, it exceeded what I expected. There are only two HBCUs in the country that offer a BFA, and Howard is one of them.”

After multiple sell-out performances this season for Miss Evers Boys and For Colored Girls, the Department of Theatre Arts is looking forward to another outstanding year. The productions for next year’s season are scheduled to be announced at the end of the school year.
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