Nathan Barlow has let his hair grow way out.
The actor, who has gone from freckle-faced child performer to lyrical adult before our eyes, now has a Jimi Hendrix-sized ’fro that fits the dream role he is playing in the musical “Passing Strange,” which opens Friday at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis.
The big hair also is about his own coming of age.
“It’s kind of rebellion against my mom,” said Barlow, who is 22. “She’s always on me about cutting my hair. Now, as an adult, I can wear it how I like.”
Mom and Dad, both teachers, can rest easy that he didn’t get a full-body tattoo or piercings everywhere. Barlow’s attitude fits his character in “Passing Strange.”
The show, by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, is about a young black musician who travels to Europe to find himself. The Broadway version won a Tony for best book in 2008; Spike Lee made a film of it the following year. At Mixed Blood, Thomas Jones II directs a cast that also includes Jamecia Bennett and Brittany Bradford.
“What I love about this show is that it is a musical but it doesn’t sound like other musicals,” Barlow said of the funk, gospel, punk and R&B score. “It’s not Gershwin, Kander and Ebb and any of that. It speaks to things that are often not the main bread on Broadway.”
A 2013 graduate of the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA program, Barlow made his professional debut in second grade, when he appeared in the ensemble of the Guthrie’s “A Christmas Carol,” a show in which he has performed a half-dozen times. He spent more than a decade at Children’s Theatre, and has worked on most major stages in the Twin Cities.
While he can point to very specific lessons and joys he has gotten from playing, say, the prince in “Cinderella” at Children’s Theatre or a Nubian servant in Theater Latté Da’s “Aida,” none of those roles compared in personal impact to a production of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” that he did with Ten Thousand Things theater in 2012.
In that show, he played Claudio, who faces the death penalty because he slept with a woman out of wedlock. The company performed the drama in correctional facilities across the state.
“Performing in prisons was mind-blowing,” Barlow said, noting the over-representation of blacks and Latinos behind bars. “The stakes for the play were incredibly high. Those brothers were watching me on the edge of their seats. Their reactions were totally honest. You had to be totally there, on the level, otherwise they wouldn’t have been engaged.”
His work ethic and charm have endeared him to mentors, especially those who have played his elders onstage.
“Oh, Nathan, he’s just the sweetest, most talented young man,” said Sally Wingert, who played his mother, Mrs. Cratchit, several times in “A Christmas Carol.” “I remember we would be waiting in the wings on stage left and Nathan would serenade me with an absolutely spot-on Johnny Mathis singing ‘Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.’ He was four feet and two pounds and a charming, absolute professional.”
Actor Ansa Akyea, who appeared with Barlow in “The Watsons Go to Birmingham” and “A Cool Drink of Water,” was impressed by Barlow’s hunger for knowledge.
“He’s a good listener who’s very eager and very intelligent,” Akyea said. “He understands the value of taking notes. He’s always chomping at the bit to be around his elders, who’re now his peers, so that he can learn as much as possible.”
Tony-nominated director Marion McClinton has cast Barlow in several productions, including “Bud, Not Buddy” at Children’s Theatre and “In the Red and Brown Water,” a Pillsbury House/Mount Curve Productions staging at the Guthrie. McClinton, who hopes to offer Barlow a role in a show next year, said that he’s most taken with the actor’s versatility.
“Nathan can tap dance, he can sing, he can do comedy and drama,” McClinton said. “He’s got pretty wide-ranging skills. Someone of his caliber will probably leave here and go to the coasts because if you’re of a certain talent, you sort of need to test yourself.”
Barlow is not thinking that far ahead. He’s simply humming to the music in the play, and the place he finds himself.
“I’m coming into my own, into what it means to be an artist, a black artist, at this moment in history,” he said. “I’m discovering that stuff now and just enjoying the ride.”