‘Passing Strange’ lives up to its title

“And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.” T.S. Eliot wrote that in “Little Gidding,” the last of his “Four Quartets,” as a white poet in his mid-50s.

Had he been a black musician in his mid-40s, he might have written “Passing Strange” instead. It has the same theme: A man looks back in time, trying to extract meaning from a life spent in confusion and turmoil.

L.A.-born Mark Stewart, who goes by the stage name Stew, wrote the Tony-winning book for the musical and co-wrote the songs with Heidi Rodewald, his partner in the band The Negro Problem. They based the show loosely on Stew’s experiences, which the authors examine with an amused but critical eye and a forgiving attitude.

He has been divided into two appealing characters: A modern-day Narrator (Jeremy De Carlos) and a 1980-ish Youth (Mekhai Lee). Youth escapes the church environment he finds stifling, the mother (Ericka Ross) he finds clingy and the Los Angeles he finds bourgeois for Western Europe. He indulges himself in Amsterdam and reinvents himself in Berlin, trying on personalities until he can decide what’s “real.”

Another musical might suggest he’ll find reality in his own back yard, or he’ll have to change radically to complete the worm-to-butterfly cycle. This one argues that “real” isn’t a meaningful adjective in any sense: “Life is a mistake that only art can correct,” says Narrator. We are, simply, what we do and love to do.

Stew and Rodewald set up a series of opposites. Youth has two eyes wide open and hurls himself into experiences; Narrator cocks an eyebrow in bemused detachment. Amsterdam is warm, a hot tub of sensations and emotions into which Youth gets dipped; Berlin is cold, cerebral, a place where women get turned on by philosophy. (Only the proper left-wing kind, of course.)

Director-designer Chip Decker emphasizes that duality, and the fine quartet of supporting actors – Kayla Carter, Gerard Hazleton, Renee Welsh-Noel and John Watson – play multiple roles and switch behaviors instantly. Carter is especially strong as the founder of Nowhaus (pronounced “Now-house”), a “family” of German performance artists.

Stew and Rodewald mock both white-on-black and black-on-black stereotypes, playing with our preconceptions. In the funniest number, “The Black One,” Youth hoodwinks his Berlin friends by pretending to be a ghetto-dweller who has escaped the twin traps of gangs and drugs. (He actually comes from a spacious two-story house and a prosperous family. But who can get material for a heartbreaking song from that?)

The play turns melodramatic toward the end of Act 2, in a moment both heartfelt and manipulative. (It may have happened to Stew, but he knows better than to insist that art reflect life like a mirror.) A note of self-pity creeps in for the first time. Then the script rights itself, and we reach the poignant finale. Sure enough, we’ve come full circle and know the place fully for the first time.