Nicholson Baker: Human Smoke

Nicholson Baker’s latest offering, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization traces the devolution of humanity and human nature as weaponry and tactics evolve. War has never been civilized business, but Baker shows the dizzying speed at which it took on ever more barbaric aspects in the first half of the last century.

There is the same attention to detail in evidence that’s characterized such earlier works as Vox, A Box of Matches, and The Size of Thoughts. Individuals are captured at very specific moments in time, their words and actions rendered in miniature, the better to illuminate the larger picture. Just as important, Baker is not content to simply rehash the same arguments, or perpetuate the same myths, that now pass for received wisdom. Much of the book’s impact derives from the fact that it thrusts generally ignored or forgotten figures like Stefan Zweig or Henry Fosdick into the spotlight, while also not shirking the faults of the narrative’s traditional “heroes,” like FDR and Winston Churchill.

The protagonists and antagonists here are as likely to be ideas as people. Pacifism is presented, more or less unquestioningly, as an a priori good, as are its proponents, among them Zweig, Charles Lindbergh, A.J. Muste, Jeanette Rankin (who has the distinction of being the only person to cast a dissenting vote against both World Wars), Christopher Isherwood, Muriel Lester, and Gandhi. Continue reading “Nicholson Baker: Human Smoke”

This Ain’t Your Pappy’s Broadway Musical

I’ve set out to write this thing about half a dozen times now, and I keep stalling. This afternoon, I was listening to a mixed CD of tunes by Passing Strange co-creator/narrator Stew and his band, The Negro Problem, and things started (kinda hesitantly) to come together.

Stew’s music, both in its gentler “Afro-baroque” guise (as Stew) and its more rock-oriented guise (as The Negro Problem) has always consisted of intimate, closely-observed vignettes. They’re character sketches of people who, no matter how screwy they may seem, are immediately familiar. We all know, or have known, these people.

Therein lies what works best about Passing Strange. Sure, the character of Youth is an Everyman character, and many of the play’s other characters are composites of some kind or another. The thing is that a lot of writers, both in song and on stage, confuse “everyman” with “lowest common denominator.” They remove all the identifying characteristics, and whitewash all the uniqueness, out of their characters, so that what you’re left with is less a flesh-and-blood human being and more like a horoscope: a blank slate onto which you can project your own dreams, insecurities, paranoia, nostalgia, whatever. These are some very specific people, and not just a series of “types” who’ve stumbled onstage.

The music doesn’t hurt, either. On the whole, Passing Strange feels like you’ve wandered into a rock concert and a Broadway show broke out. A lot of ink has been spilled (and more, no doubt, will be) about how this play so gleefully breaks down boundaries; I tend to disagree. From very early on (TNP’s 1997 offering, Post Minstrel Syndrome) it’s clear that Stew doesn’t so much demolish the boundaries as ignore them. He realizes, I think, that—like the concept of “The Real” that provides Strange’s backdrop—these boundaries (rock “versus” R&B, James Brown “versus” Arthur Lee, Kurt Weill “versus” Einsturzende Neubaten) are just constructs. Music’s just… well, music. There’s nothing inherently incompatible in any of it. So punk segues to soul, “My Little Red Book” and “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” have equal earworm time with shades of Sondheim and industrial. The musical draws a handful of its tunes from past efforts, their lyrics changed slightly to better fit the action onstage. Two songs are lifted from The Negro Problem’s albums including the show’s opener, “We Might Play All Night,” (reworked from “Out Now”) and “Come Down Now,” which in its current incarnation deserves to be a hit single. Stew’s solo efforts also yield some material; “Arlington Hill” and “Must’ve Been High” come from “The Naked Dutch Painter,” while “Love Like That” first showed up on “Something Deeper Than These Changes.” But, unlike the rash of “Jukebox Musicals” that mix an artist’s back catalog with a handful of dancers and a thin plot (Mama Mia!, Xanadu, Movin’ Out, and The Times They Are A-Changin’ all come to mind), this looks, feels, and plays different.See, if this isn’t your typical Broadway musical, it also shouldn’t somehow be relegated to “black theater.” Sure, it’s written and acted by people who happen to be (to cop a phrase from Curtis Mayfield) darker than blue… but it’s as thematically universal as it is stylistically varied. And, unlike Rent, to use just one example, it’s not trying to be anything other than what it is. It doesn’t worry about whether it’s Broadway enough, rock enough, black enough, or whether it’s going to make the white folks in the orchestra seats uneasy. For two-and-a-half hours, it’s nothing other than its own bad self.

I won’t rehash the story itself, partly because it’s been done in every other review that’s out there, and partly because you’re better off getting the story from the show than from a review anyway. Suffice to say that it’s a creative and pretty lively take on the timeworn coming-of-age/self-discovery arc. That’s not to say that Passing Strange is flawless. The second act’s stereotypical Germans come off somewhat ham-handed, at least in part because the first act was so deft at skewering stereotypes and expectations. Also, the story arc has a few dull spots, but the show’s pacing—which varies between brisk and breakneck—is such that these amount to speed bumps, and not potholes.

And the show’s ending isn’t quite its ending. Other reviews have mentioned that the ending feels a bit tacked on, but I ended up seeing the ending in a bit different context; the show itself—its music, its semi-autobiographical context, the Narrator looking on with a mix of amusement and exasperation at his fictionalized younger self—suggest that the show doesn’t quite end at the curtain call. Go back to the albums that preceded the show to see both how it all turned out, and also where it all started. All of which is to say that when it’s all said and done, Passing Strange isn’t so much the destination, as one stop on a journey, or maybe some kind of Mobius strip. It’s a long, (passing) strange, trip, and its characters aren’t the only ones who come out a little different on the other side.

The cast includes Daniel Breaker, de’Adre Aziza, Eliza Davis, Colman Domingo (who steals many of the scenes in which he’s featured), Chad Goodridge, and Rebecca Naomi Jones, many of whom play multiple roles, and all of whom, one assumes, will be seen much more often. They’re directed by Annie Dorsen, who keeps things just rough enough around the edges. She’s joined by Karole Armitage, who’s billed as “Movement Coordinator,” providing choreography with a loose but sure hand. The band (who are on stage with the other players) consist of Stew’s longtime partner/collaborator Heidi Rodewald (bass, backing vocals), Christian Cassan (drums), Jon Spurney (keyboards, guitar, backing vocals) and Christian Gibbs (who not only plays guitar and keyboards, but also doubles—to hilarious effect—as a prop from time to time). Passing Strange is playing at the Belasco Theater.