Review: Local actor, director, poet, activist reflects on recent “Passing Strange”

By Patsy Isenberg

Her name’s Harvey. Just Harvey.  She’s been in numerous Flint area theatre productions. She was in “The Wolves” at Flint Repertory Theatre last season and played The Orator in their recent “The Chairs” show.

And she’s been studying theater arts since elementary school here in Flint and has a B.A. in both theater arts and French from the University of Michigan – Flint. Before the Flint Repertory Theatre (The Rep) left the “Flint Youth Theatre” name behind,  she was in several of those shows as a youngster and did plays at UM-Flint during her education there and occasionally still does.

Harvey, on stage (Photo by Patsy Isenberg)

But most recently, Harvey, 25,  directed a show of her own at Flint Local 432 at 124 W. First St., downtown. That happened in early December:   three shows, one each night, Friday through Sunday.

It was Passing Strange,  a musical that won a Tony award for “Best Book of a Musical” in 2008 and was nominated for six others and won several Drama Desk Awards that year. The book was written by Stew Rodewald with  music and lyrics co-written by Stew and Heidi Rodewald in collaboration with director Annie Dorsen. It’s really different.

Hilton Als writes about this musical in The New Yorker, “Passing Strange is a brilliant work about migration — a geographical migration but also its hero’s migration beyond the tenets of “blackness” and toward selfhood.” 

Harvey described the story this way, “It’s about this boy. It’s 1976 in South Central Los Angeles in 1976. He doesn’t feel like he fits in. He’s a black boy but he’s not into the stuff that’s traditionally supposed to be black. He likes punk rock, he’s getting into like Buddhism, all this stuff. So the people around him in the community are like ‘you’re not black enough … who are you?’”

He is always at odds with his mother too, but she does convince him to go back to her Baptist church one Sunday. He doesn’t relate to the Christian faith but while there that day he has a “religious” experience and the cast sings “Church Blues Revelation/Freight Train,’ an energetic gospel number. Youth joins the church choir and that leads to his making friends with some people in it and, of all things, they start a punk rock band. The punk number they do in the show is “Sole Brother.” It’s very loud and very punk.

So, the title of the play starts to make sense. That title was originally from Shakespeare in Othello, the Moor of Venice when Othello says:

 My story being done,

She gave me for my pains a world of sighs;

She swore, in faith ’twas strange, ’twas passing strange;

Twas pitiful. ’twas wondrous pitiful,

She wish’d she had not heard it, yet she wish’d

That heaven had made her such a man.

Othello, the Moor of Venice, act 1, scene 3, lines 158–163

 The boy, who’s only referred to as “Youth” in the play, decides that when he turns 18 he’s moving to Amsterdam — a city he’s heard good things about. The song “Amsterdam” is one of the more popular songs from the show. 

To his mother’s disappointment, he does make the move. He has a great time there with the ladies and the drugs and all that, but eventually feels he needs pain to be an artist. Harvey says that he thinks “I must go! So I can feel!”

So the Youth moves to Berlin in 1986. The group of people Youth makes friends with there are completely different than the ones in Amsterdam. When he first meets them there’s a riot going on and even though Youth is from South Central L.A. he lives in a suburban middle-class neighborhood and hadn’t been exposed to something like this before.

These friends are angry “radical artists” and feeling pain to be sure. “What’s inside is just a lie!” is an extreme number from this Berlin portion of the story. The song is performed by a character named Mr. Venus (played in Flint by Jonathon Mateen II) who races up to people in the audience at Flint Local 432 and yells that title in their faces very aggressively. That was fun and unexpected!

Passing Strange cast at Local 432:  Front (l-r) Carmen Brown, Jonathon Mateen II, Harvey, Lewis Clay, JoJo Bee, and Re-C. Standing behind group: Melanie Jones.  Band in back (l-r) Anthony Feimster, Terrence Smith, Tyler Robinson, and Ethan Martin (Photo by Patsy Isenberg)

Harvey’s production at Flint Local 432 was the perfect venue for a number like that. Flint Local 432 has a club-like atmosphere where people either just stand at tables or grab a chair if they can find one, so everyone is very close to the stage. The event was free, so it appeared nobody complained about possibly having to stand.

But this show was full of sharp contrasts and unexpected numbers, one after the other. The cast worked together very well, especially during another number from a totally different genre, “The Black One.” It was Youth and his friends doing a song and dance in a cabaret in Berlin à la Bob Fosse.

The band that played all those diverse musical numbers were musicians gathered together by music director Anthony Feimster of Flint who also plays piano. Guitar player Ethan Martin, bass player Tyler Robinson, and percussionist Terrence Smith came from Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo to rehearse and perform. 

Harvey gathered a group of artists she was acquainted with who are also into theatre. Of the six other cast members, four played the multiple roles of her friends in all three cities. Jonathon Mateen II, JoJo Bee, Re-C, and Lewis Clay played those roles. The other two characters in the show were her mother, played by Carmen Brown, and Stew, played by Melanie Jones, who has an amazing voice. Stew, as mentioned, wrote the story and put himself into it as “The Narrator.”

Stew is quoted in Wikipedia explaining Stew the character’s role in “Passing Strange.” “It’s a 46-year-old guy looking back at the things that he did and the values he had in his 20s, sort of when you’re making that decision to really be an artist.” So, Stew is Youth at a later stage in life.

Okay, so Stew is played by a woman. Well, likewise, Harvey plays the role of the Youth. “What’s in your pants shouldn’t determine what kind of roles you can get,”  Harvey said.

She said she feels this play challenges a lot of ideas like that. Harvey has many firm beliefs about breaking stereotypes and is very socially conscious. For example, she said,  “Blackness isn’t one thing. Theater isn’t one thing. Gender isn’t one thing.” Picking this play illustrates all of those possibilities. She’s a thinker.

Harvey said she had a very good education. She attended Pierce Elementary School–one of those recently proposed for closure by the Flint Community School district board of education —  and was exposed to a lot of art in her education there, partly due to its location close to the Flint Cultural Center.

She said she was drawn to theater and learned a lot about improv comedy starting in sixth grade. Later she got involved in Flint Youth Theatre and then attended the Flint Southwestern Classical Academy for high school. UM-Flint happens to have a very good Theater Arts department, she said, which she took advantage of right out of high school. 

When the water crisis happened Harvey got involved in benefits such as “Justice for Flint” and “Many Rivers to Cross,” where she performed spoken-word poetry with groups such as “Raise It Up,” and said she was always willing to travel to get more experience and exposure.

She got to meet the many celebrities involved in those benefits such as Stevie Wonder, Janelle Monae, Ledisi, Andra Day, Jazmine Sullivan, Harry Belafonte, Michael Moore, and Santana, just to name a few. She’s traveled for work to New Hampshire, New York City, and Hawaii.

We couldn’t resist asking her about her name.  “Alexis Harvey” began to be known as simply “Harvey” when she was doing lots of spoken-word poetry gigs. The name stuck and she felt she always had to include her moniker in quotes between her first and last name as people usually do and she thought it would be silly or awkward to say her name was Alexis “Harvey” Harvey. So she just uses Harvey. Anyway, she feels it suits her vibe to go by one name as a lot of people in entertainment (Prince, Cher, Beyonce, Madonna, and even Stew who wrote this play) do.

“Passing Strange” played to a full house each of the three nights the group performed.

She said she stays busy doing Improv Theatre in Detroit at “Comedy Sports” right now. She clarifies that it’s not comedy about sports, but comedy as a sport where two teams compete in front of a live audience and the audience votes for a winner.

It seems that Harvey is always open to new experiences of her craft, though, so no telling what’s on the horizon for her. But she says Flint is her home base and likely to stay that way.

EVM Staff Writer and arts reviewer Patsy Isenberg can be reached at

Author: East Village Magazine

A Non-profit, Community News Magazine Since 1976

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