Before breaking out with the rock-and-soul group JC Brooks And The Uptown Sound, Jayson Brooks was a rising star in the city’s musical theater scene. Returning to the stage in Bailiwick’s production of the Tony Award-winning Passing Strange, Brooks recently took the Uptown Sound with him for the Midwest première of the autobiographical rock musical which ran for over a month at the Chicago Center For Performing Arts. Passing Strange is the story of musician Stew’s journey to find his creative role in the world, leaving behind a mother in Los Angeles to seek enlightenment abroad. Now that the band is back on the road, playing tonight at North Star Bar with Black Landlord, The A.V. Club talked to Brooks about Passing Strange, playing the role originated by the show’s creator, and how he relates to Stew’s experience on a personal and artistic level. (If you're interested in seeing Passing Strange, Wilmington, Delaware's Bootless Artworks will be putting on a production later this fall.)
The A.V. Club: What was your first exposure to Passing Strange?
JC Brooks: It was last spring. After rehearsal, our saxophonist Chris [Neal] was like, “I was watching this thing on PBS the other night, and it was something you’d probably really enjoy.” And he didn’t see the whole thing, so he sort of skipped the story. “It’s about this black kid who doesn’t fit in, and blah blah blah.” And I thought that sounded interesting. I didn’t even realize Spike Lee had gone through the trouble of filming or anything like that. I just thought it was one of those random—PBS used to show Nunsense and things like that whenever they were doing a pledge drive, just hawking the videos—I thought it was like that. So I’m wondering why I couldn’t find it anywhere, and then I found out, hey, you have to buy it. I Netflixed it and saw it and thought, “Wow, this is was a pretty awesome musical.” Then in October, Lil [Director Lili-Anne Brown] asked if me and the band would be interested in doing Passing Strange, and I was like, “I’ll make sure they’re interested.”
AVC: As a musician, did you see parallels between Stew’s experience and your own?
JB: Yes and no. I can definitely identify with the main experience. Not really feeling comfortable at home, not feeling at home at home, and looking elsewhere for that. Beyond that, the other coincidences are pretty loose. One of the characters in the show is named Marianna, and I used to date this dude named Marion. We have a sort of similar story, and it actually became the focus of the first [StrangeVision] blog.
In the play, the Youth is the person who, once he’s happy, he can’t stay like that because he’s stopped creating something meaningful. And in my life, the roles were reversed. Everything was going well, except he stopped writing, and we ended up breaking up because he just wasn’t happy being happy. If you’re a conspiracy theorist, you can definitely find a relationship between any two things, so I don’t want to stretch it out too much, but I do find a couple more coincidental parallels between my life and Stew’s story. His mom and my mom are very similar. One of the plot elements is that she pushes him to go to church and she never wanted to go. That’s something that happened to me. My mom would ship me off on weekends to my grandparents’ house because they would take me to church, and she had no interest whatsoever.
AVC: How do you research a role that is largely autobiographical? How much of your performance is Stew and how much is Jayson?
JB: I’ve watched interviews about the show to see where he was coming from and what the process was. It took a lot of years for this musical to happen, so I was more interested in that. I missed an opportunity when Stew was in town doing a show at the MCA, and Lil and Kevin [Mayes], the producer, and some of the cast members of the show got to talk to him after and get some personal information. One of the things I didn’t know, which I thought was kind of suspect, but I also thought was another parallel to my life—I was raised by a single mother, and Stew’s father doesn’t really appear in the story at all. Is he dead? I just assumed that he wasn’t in the picture. Turns out his father was always in the picture—he’s still alive, they have a good relationship—but they cut him out of the play because Passing Strange is about Stew’s relationship with women. How his relationship with his mother made him uncomfortable with comfort, and how he sabotaged every relationship after that. We don’t do that much psychological threading in the show itself, but reading the source material and about the show, it’s a really interesting psych profile. But a lot of it I’m making my own.
Stew is very comfortable with us tinkering—obviously not with overall plot—but with little things in the show. I’m not really playing Stew; I’m playing JC. We’ve altered some lyrics here and there. It’s a weird line to walk, because everyone knows I’m not Stew, and we’re trying to make it clear I’m not trying to play Stew, but there are also a lot of personal moments that I really connect to. We are trying to draw a line that I am not this guy, but it starts to blur. There’s stuff that’s already been laid out that I work from, but we’re making it a point that I’m not playing Stew, I’m just telling his story.
AVC: The music of the show is influenced by a lot of different eras of music. How familiar were you with different styles? Did you ever have a punk band when you were younger?
JB: Oh yeah. My first band in Chicago was a punk-pop band named The Hadleys. I think our MySpace page is still up. Back in high school, same thing. This is question that come up a lot with the band: “Why’d you want to make this soul band?” And I’m like, “Actually, the soul thing was [guitarist] Bill [Bungeroth]’s idea.” He just wanted to make a band that people would dance to, because we were talking about going to show at the [Empty] Bottle, or shows around town, where people are obviously enjoying the music but there’s a lot of nodding and no dancing. We wanted to make music that people would dance to, so people are always like, “Hey, black guy, why did you start this soul band with white people?” I’ve sung in punk and rock bands all my life. When people ask me after the show what my favorite music is, my favorite band is Steely Dan. It’s very much not related to the music I’ve grown up doing, I’ve grown up listening to, or the band that I’m currently in. And everybody in the band is similarly eclectic.
AVC: Have you ever been to Amsterdam or Berlin?
JB: I haven’t. I’ve been to Europe twice, and both times it’s been Spain. Once when I was in high school and once with the band. We’re actually going back this fall, but this time we’re trying to make it a much longer trip so we can make it to other countries. It’s a beautiful country, but I’d love to get to Amsterdam or anywhere else. I just want more world.