July 23, 2008

"Expatriate" Shouldn't Be Foreign Territory

Passing Strange closed this past Sunday, after just 20 previews and 165 performances. But while the show may be gone, it doesn’t look as though it’s going to be forgotten any time soon. A cast album came out last week. Movie director Spike Lee filmed the rock musical’s final Broadway performances for a movie that may be shown on one of the premium cable networks or even released to your local cineplex. And now the Culture Project is presenting Expatriate, a performance piece about two young black women who, like the Youth character in Passing Strange, flee the U.S. to find themselves in Europe. You might call it Passing Strange’s gawky kid sister.

Like Passing Strange, Expatriate is filled with music, terrific performances and stories we too seldom see on Broadway, Off-Broadway or even Off-Off. In fact, a contemporary African-American female experience probably hasn’t gotten this much stage time since Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf debuted back in 1975, moved to the Public Theater and then transferred to Broadway for a nearly two-year run. A revival of for colored girls,
starring the neo-soul singer-songwriter India.Arie, had been scheduled to open at Circle in the Square in September but as my fellow blogger Chris Caggiano at Everything I Know I Learned from Musicals pointed out earlier this week, Telecharge is no longer selling tickets and so that production may be in trouble.

Expatriate, written by the statuesque Haitian-American poet and playwright Lenelle Moise, who also co-stars, isn’t as polished as Passing Strange or as the Circle in the Square for colored girls production probably would be. Moise and her co-star Karla Mosley play all the parts, sing, dance, operate a foot-pedal-driven loop machine to provide the music and sometimes even move around the few mobile pieces of the set.

There is also a slightly
clichéd quality to Expatriate’s story of Claudie and Alphine, two poor girls who grow up in a Boston ghetto, grapple with poverty and drugs, sexual abuse and homophobia but struggle through it all to achieve showbiz stardom. The early scenes run through such a catalog of inner-city woes that my friend Evie, a longtime activist in black community affairs, leaned over to groan, “Oh no, not this stuff again.” The audience at the performance we attended seemed to agree that they’d been there and seen too much of this before because a good number of them left at intermission.

But both Evie and I thought the performances were worth staying for. Particularly Mosley’s. She gives a charismatic performance and sings jazz, hip-hop and pop with equal aplomb. It’s the kind of star turn that would have producers lining up to cast her in their shows if they did more of them about women who look like Moise and Mosley. But, alas, given the hard time Passing Strange had finding an audience, fewer producers may be willing to take such a risk.

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