If Stew, who goes by one name, needed any endorsements for “Passing Strange” beyond it’s Tony Award, he could have looked to the fact that Denzel Washington, Whoppi Goldberg, Samuel L. Jackson and Diana Ross all came for a look-see. Or the fact that Toni Morrison and Angela Davis were so moved as to come back for seconds and thirds. But it is Spike Lee who got behind the work in the most supportive way. After a double helping in a single weekend he was distraught enough about the inevitable close of the show to devise a posterity plan. A tale that found itself beyond convention both in content (the coming of age of an African-American rock musician by way of LA, Amsterdam and Berlin) and form (a concert trapped in a play), Lee initially wanted to develop it as a feature production. In the end he got his Tyler Perry on, set up cameras as he had with Roger Guenveur Smith’s brilliant one-man show, “A Huey P. Newton Story”, and began rolling.
This worked out quite nicely. “Passing Strange” showed at Sundance and is now only a Netflix mailing away. But obviously waiting for Spike Lee to have a conversion experience is a less than efficient process for preserving great theatrical work. In the hopes that someone with a camera will hear the call, we propose seven black playwrights deserving of a wider audience. Some already have filmmaking irons in the fire, yet all are ripe for the opportunity.