8 Questions with Sam McWhite of Trustus Theatre's "Passing Strange"

Jasper first met Sam McWhite when he and the great storyteller and actor Darion McCloud performed an audience engaging couple of songs at the Studios in the Arcade building for the release of the third issue of our magazine. We told him then that we wanted to spend some more time with him soon, and we got that opportunity on Friday night when Jasper attended the opening night of Passing Strange at Trustus Theatre. Sam plays the lead role of Stew in the play, singing, dancing, cavorting, and drawing all kinds of depth and emotion from his brother and sister characters. It's always nice to get to know the person behind the character, especially when that character is as powerful as Stew is.

To that end, let's spend a few moments getting to know Sam McWhite.


1. You are acting as the narrator in the Trustus play, Passing Strange. What about the part felt natural to you?

I feel connected with Stew's external conflict with artistic conformity. His expressions seem both primal and sophisticated. I think Stew and I are both ferocious and gentle artists with a sense of when to wax and wane in between. To me, he is more of a griot [a West African storyteller - ed.] than a singer or musician. I try to tap into to that energy when I become him.


2. What felt unnatural or uncomfortable and how did you overcome it?

I felt uncomfortable with my inability to play guitar. I thought that would be a detriment to the production. I know it seems trivial but that bothered me a lot! But as I did more and more character study, I realized that the guitar does not make the rock star, the rock star makes the rock star. It would have probably got in the way anyway. Knowing me, I probably would have waved it around like a battle-axe not having played a single note! (Chuckles)


3. Your vocals are impressive. Where did you get your chops?

Thank you so much! Truthfully, I am not really satisfied with my singing ability yet. I grew up singing parts, not solos, in church choirs. That became a bit boring to me. Things really got interesting when I joined the high school band. Being in the band allowed me to listen to an ocean of textures and forms. I learned to listen to how a song develops emotion without words. When I got to college I joined the concert choir as well the wind ensemble. I was a trombone major. Because I was not technically a vocal major, I had to study vocal pedagogy on my own. I would spend nights in the practice rooms listening to vinyls over and over again. Sometimes I got locked in! Then my band director gave me an opportunity to be a lead singer in the college's big band. That's where I got staging techniques from. I sang jazz, blues, soul, country, you name it. For the past year I have been studying blues and American folk music. I incorporate a lot of those elements in my singing.


4. Where were you born, raised, and where did you go to school?

I was born and raised in Florence, SC. I went to West Florence High School. I started at Claflin University but later transferred to South Carolina State University.


5. Other than Passing Strange, what is your all-time favorite play?

August: Osage County is my favorite play.


6. Other than Passing Strange, what has been your favorite role that you have played?

Other than Passing Strange, I loved playing "the Man" in Crowns. I played different manifestations of the spirit Esu/Elegba of the Orisha pantheon. I was brother, a father, a preacher and suitor.


7. Passing strange boasts an amazing cast of characters – who is your favorite character and why?

My favorite character is Mr. Franklin. There was a person very dear to me who was just like him. He was the director the community youth choir I sang on and played trombone for when I was growing up. Growing up as a latch-key kid in a single parent household, my mother saw to keeping me active in community organizations to keep me out of trouble. My father died before I knew him so the youth choir director was one of my paternal substitutes. He was so dynamic and charismatic. He could play, sing and electrify an audience! There was about two hundred kids from 5 to 18 years old on that choir and man could we sing! He was like a firecracker lit inside of paper box. His name was Kenneth "Jab" Windom. He died a couple of years ago. I miss him a lot. Often, when I am singing, I imagine his voice of correction and laughter so I can harness untapped energy reserves. He was relentless.


8. If it’s Friday night in Columbia and you aren’t in a play or attending a play, where are you most likely to be?

If it is Friday night...., see here is the thing. I am not very good a predicting where I'll be or what I'll be doing. It might be anything from listening to Dean Koontz audiobook to sitting in on trombone or singing with a band. It just depends on my mood I guess.