IN 2005 at the Sundance Theatre Lab, Daniel Breaker was perfunctorily reading a play in which he thought he was being offered a minor role, a character simply called Youth. But 20 pages into the quirky musical "Passing Strange," the actor was struck by a phrase that rocked him: "Franklin's words washed over him like a Bach fugue creeping out of a cheap car stereo. . . . "
"That got me," Breaker recalls of the moment in the show when Youth is set on a voyage of self-discovery by Franklin, a flamboyant, marijuana-puffing choir director of a South Central L.A. church. "I thought, 'Wow. This play is amazing. It's gonna be good for you.' "
The actor, now 28, was as prescient as he was understated. "Passing Strange" opened at the Public Theater in 2007 to rave reviews; it transferred to Broadway this year. Having recently won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for best musical, the rock show has been nominated for seven Tony Awards, including best musical. It has also earned nods for creator and star, L.A.-based rocker Stew, and for Breaker, who plays the younger incarnation of the author, who describes his picaresque tale as "semi-autobiographical fiction."
New York Times critic Charles Isherwood called Breaker's performance "sensational," praising the actor's "nervy energy and antic enthusiasm."
That charming gawkiness appears to be a natural attribute for the self-described Army brat whose formative years were spent in Germany, Illinois and Florida. "I was and still am a somewhat awkward kid," Breaker says. "I got an e-mail from my cousin in Louisiana that said: 'I always knew you'd get a Tony nomination for playing a nerd!' "
"Daniel has this wonderful combination of innocence and bravado," says Stew, eschewing the notion that Breaker is a stand-in for himself but rather is emblematic of all youth, "whether it's my daughter, friends I grew up with or James Baldwin going off to Europe.
"The character knows what he wants and goes after it. And Daniel is like that in real life."
Even so, that confused adolescence appears to be fused with an emotional maturity. Sitting in a midtown restaurant over a plate of linguine, Breaker is a bit bewildered to discover that 2008 has not only brought a breakthrough in a career heretofore known for a slew of classical roles but also marriage -- to director Kate Whoriskey -- and impending fatherhood. "Playing in 'Cymbeline' last December [at Lincoln Center] afforded me an engagement ring," Breaker jokes. " 'Passing Strange' afforded me a wedding. Hopefully what follows will afford me to have a child."
Given his strides into adult responsibility, it's not surprising that Breaker is enjoying the youthful anarchy endemic to "Passing Strange." The platform is a hybrid of rock concert and theatrical event that tells the story of a South Central teen rebelling against his middle-class background through an expat liberation in the Bohemian cafes and clubs of Amsterdam and Berlin. The inside joke of the show's title -- a reference to the social history of light-skinned blacks "passing" for white -- applies to Youth, who gains status only after jettisoning his bourgeois background to "pass" as a South Central thug.
Breaker's own personal game of "passing" took on a more sedate form. As the youngest of four born to Barbara and Ronald Breaker, he spent his first nine years in Germany, where his family was celebrated as exotica of sorts. "Our neighbors were so happy to see this 'little big-eyed black kid' that they'd give us food," recalls Breaker. "We were definitely outsiders, but my parents were wonderful in turning everything into a great adventure for all of us."
Thus it was a shock when the family returned to the States. Breaker eventually enrolled in an Illinois high school where he was one of only two dozen blacks in a student body of 3,000. Accepted neither by whites nor blacks, his survival kit included family, Bach, Brahms and the protective persona of class clown. "I started doing impressions of Steve Urkel and Ed Grimley as my way of getting through the fear of rejection," he says. "And while I was inside this mask, I discovered I was really good at it and that I really sort of liked it."
Being who he is
THAT impulse took on a greater urgency when a crush on a white classmate was rejected because of what he felt were racial considerations. "I thought that something was wrong with me," he recalled. "Only many years later did I come to understand that it was her problem." It was an emotional event that Breaker says he's worked into his performance as Youth. "As a kid, I would push my shoulders forward in order to hide my heart from being hurt," he recalls. "I took that slouch on for Youth at the top of the show."
After the family moved to Jacksonville, Fla., Breaker attended a magnet art high school. It was here that he first heard of Juilliard. "This teacher suggested that I audition, and I asked, 'What's it like?' He said, 'Like "Fame." ' So I thought I'd go to New York and dance on cabs."
No dancing on cabs as it turned out, but at Juilliard Breaker was finally allowed to be just who he was: a black man who loved classical music and theater.
After he graduated, Breaker played a number of classical roles at Washington, D.C.'s Shakespeare Theatre, including a 2005 stint as a high-flying Ariel in a production of "The Tempest," directed by Whoriskey. The two had met a year earlier when the director had cast Breaker in an off-Broadway production of Lynn Nottage's "Fabulation."
"I was suspended as Ariel for 84 minutes," he says, laughing at the metaphor of a woman keeping her husband-to-be hanging in the air for a record amount of time.
As to life after "Passing Strange," Breaker is itching to do more Shakespeare, but he'll be just as happy buying formula and baby diapers for his son. He concurs with what Stew says in the musical: "People like me -- we feel like art is more real than life." But only up to a point. "I think art is more glorious than life but not more real," he says. "I love that spiritual, sometimes ecstatic, connection you get with an audience and with the company. It's pure heaven. But I also love the tangibility of making a meal for my wife."