Performer Eisa Davis stays open to her many passions.
Sometime between 6:30 and 7:30 p.m. every Tuesday through Saturday, Angela Eisa Davis ’92 (she goes by her middle name, which rhymes with “Lisa”) slips through an alley on the left side of Broadway’s century-old Belasco Theatre. She opens a heavy, unmarked door, calls a joyful greeting to the security man who sits just inside the entrance, and climbs two flights of steep concrete steps to reach a dressing room that must have looked similar in 1907 (when Antoinette Perry was starring in the Belasco’s inaugural production), despite a few of Davis’s own touches—a rattan mat, a map of the world thumbtacked to the wall. An antique sink in the corner appears to have its original fixtures. The mirror is rimmed with light bulbs. The cruddy glamour of the space screams Broadway. And yet, nearly every day, after stepping into a crisp, lavender dress, muting her shock of black curls into a demure bun, and strapping her microphone to her chest, Davis strides onstage to star in a Broadway show that screams, “This is not a Broadway show!”
She plays The Mother in Passing Strange, the coming-of-age story of a middle-class black teen—The Youth—who’s a little too smart for his own good. With his mom’s reluctant blessing, he heads off to Amsterdam and Berlin to hobnob with free-lovers and anarchists. He’s searching for a life that he sees as more “real” than his own bourgeois upbringing, but he can’t escape the stubborn love of his flawed but strong mother, which catches up with him when he least expects it.
The plot sounds simple, but the musical might be the most original in a string of unconventional productions that have changed the face of Broadway recently, including Spring Awakening and In the Heights. Like its more famous cousins, Passing Strange more closely resembles a rock-concert-cum-literature-seminar than an Andrew Lloyd Webber popera. Its title is lifted from Othello, and its lyrics are sharply witty and subversively clever, overflowing with casual references to Hegel and Marx, Truffaut and Godard, James Baldwin and Josephine Baker.
Stew, the mononymous rock musician who wrote the show and serves as its narrator, draws inspiration from gospel, soul, vaudeville, cabaret, and punk—nearly every genre, in fact, except traditional musical theater. At one point, The Youth breaks into a giddy pantomime of what Stew has just referred to as an “upbeat, gotta-leave-this-town kinda show tune.” “We don’t know how to write those kinds of songs,” Stew interrupts, with a sly grin. Although Davis is quick to praise more conventional musicals—“I’m so excited that we’re on the same street as Gypsy and Spamalot”—she is also quick to point out Passing Strange’s many differences from them. “Everyone who sings in our play is singing for a reason,” she says. “It’s not just, ‘Let’s drop in a song.’ Every moment is a full-frontal attack of meaning and story.”
Davis herself was born into a very different kind of black family, but it marked her in a very similar way. She was raised in Berkeley by her mother, a civil-rights lawyer, and her aunt and namesake, former Black Panther Angela Davis. “We spent a lot of time at demonstrations,” she remembers. “The idea of social activism and justice on both a local and global level was just everyday. All of us wore black to school when Reagan was reelected.”
Davis’s mother was serious about exposing her to a variety of arts—dance, theater, music—and Davis responded by embracing nearly all of them, taking piano and dance lessons and putting on plays in their living room. She admits that she applied to Harvard on a lark, but once there, she was surprised and delighted to be surrounded by people who shared her drive to perform. She sang in a cover band, helped found two literary journals, and acted often, winning the Levy Award (for most promising actor or actress) in her senior year. She still speaks with giddy enthusiasm about studying film with Spike Lee and playwriting with Adrienne Kennedy, a leader in the Black Arts Movement, who became a mentor. And she concentrated in social studies; her senior thesis explored the role of parody and humor in identity politics, an issue she and her current castmates, who refer to themselves as the “Alternanegros,” continue to delve into in Passing Strange, which is often disconcertingly blunt and jokey about race.
After graduating, Davis moved to Los Angeles to help edit a hip-hop magazine and try to begin an acting career. Not until she started going into debt did she realize she had to “get serious” about a life in the arts, or get out. She promptly left for New York and enrolled at the Actors Studio, studying acting, playwriting, and vocal technique. Since earning her M.F.A., she has acted on TV (Law and Order, The Wire) as well as on stage. She has written eight plays, including Bulrusher, a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize. And she has spent large chunks of her free time writing soulful, jazz-inflected songs, which she performs often at venues like Joe’s Pub and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
At 37, she is wholly uninterested in choosing a specialty, rejecting the idea that a viable career in the performing arts is impossible without devoting yourself to just one. Passing Strange is a surprise hit that will require her to take the stage five nights a week indefinitely. Despite her grueling Broadway schedule, Davis released a debut album, Something Else, on which she sings 10 bluesy and introspective songs of her own composition. Her newest play, Angela’s Mixtape, a memoir about the complicated mixture of anxiety and pride she feels at being her aunt’s niece, will be staged in New York next season. Davis will play herself—or rather, “a character named Eisa.”
Just as Passing Strange refuses to tamp itself down by committing to a single musical genre, Davis is determined to remain open to as many of her passions as possible, for as long as possible. “I’m a much better playwright because I’m an actor,” she says. “I can imagine what a character is experiencing in a sensory way, movement by movement.” Music, she adds, “helps my playwriting for its rhythm and inevitability. Writing songs has helped me to become a more confident performer and to understand a character’s lyricism, and playwriting has helped my acting and music by allowing me to see the entire picture, the whole narrative I fit into or am creating. They all have their own unique craft, and yet they all feed each other in sometimes unexpected ways.”