Review: Passing Strange (Obsidian Theatre & Acting Up Stage Company)

Passing Strange is a “sexy, poignant” coming-of-age story, on stage at Toronto’s Opera House

Pssst, hey you! Are you looking for a good time? You like music? You like stories? Forget about La La Land for a moment and get yourself over to The Opera House to see Obsidian Theatre/Acting Up Stage Company’s production of Passing Strange. Written by Stew (in collaboration with Heidi Rodewald and Annie Dorsen), it fuses R&B, soul, and punk rock to tell the story of a Black youth from late ’70s South Central Los Angeles who goes abroad on a journey of self-discovery.

I loved this show so much! I want to tell you ALL OF THE THINGS. But I don’t want to overwhelm and confuse you, so let me bring my still-tapping feet in line and put my thoughts in proper order. 

A word that gets thrown around a lot is “irreverent” and I almost used it here to describe the tone of this, but that would have been misleading. Y’see, this story has a deep respect for things like love, life experience, and human connection, and all of the things we often don’t think about properly until quite late in life. We are meant to truly care about these characters, but the story does poke fun at the notion of identity and all of the misguided ideas we cling to while trying to find ourselves.

In a cosy, middle-class area of South Central, we meet our protagonist known only as Youth: a Black teenager (Jahlen Barnes) and his mother (Divine Brown). He’s kinda bored and rejects the lifestyle he shares with his mother as she tries to be a proper Baptist Christian. After allowing himself to be dragged to church one day, he has a near-religious experience while listening to the gospel choir.

Music now his passion, he first joins a youth choir, but quickly tires of their tame music and ideals. After an LSD-fuelled burst of inspiration, he leaves his mother—and a comfortable, middle-class life—behind to find himself in Europe. There, he meets slew of endearing, colourful characters, only to realize that he might have missed out on some important things.

This is a sex, drugs, and rock&roll story, but rather than fixate on sleaze, stardom and dysfunction, Passing Strange gives us a heady mixture of adventure, whimsy, and culture clash. From the free love and easy-access drugs of Amsterdam to the harsh vibes, political performance art of Berlin, our protagonist gets tossed about as he tries to find the meaning of his life in art.

Jahlen Barnes has a remarkably expressive face that almost tells the entire story all by itself. He’s surrounded, though, by an ensemble of incredible performers (Peter Fernandes, Vanessa Sears, David Lopez and Sabryn Rock) who play the various characters who help to shape his journey.

Director Philip Akin and choreographer Kimberley Rampersad have crafted an exuberant and visually thrilling spectacle that feels grounded and sincere. Sometimes, when you see elaborate choreography you marvel at all the fancy moves, but this is somewhat different. Here though, all movement—stylish as it is—feels natural and  motivated by mood, character and situation.

The Opera House is the ideal venue for this show. The production feels spontaneous with the band on stage and an always-charismatic Narrator (Beau Dixon) who introduces himself as if this were a gig he’s playing and we just happen to have shown up on a night where he’d like to tell us a story.

Passing Strange is a sexy, poignant, and exceptionally funny experience. I cannot recommend it highly enough.


  • Passing Strange plays until February 5, 2017 at The Opera House (735 Queen Street East)
  • Tickets are $10 to $55 (MORE at the door)
  • Tickets can be purchased online or by phone: 647-438-5559 or outside GTA: 1-866-447-7849
  • This is a 19+ production

Photo of Peter Fernandes, Sabryn Rock, Jahlen Barnes, Vanessa Sears, David Lopez by Racheal McCaig.