"Every oppressed culture feels like they have to present a whitewashed, bullshit version of their heroes because they feel that everybody else is criticizing them. When they get a chance to make a picture, it’s got to be like some Norman Rockwell thing, you know?" —Stew
Once upon a time in L.A., circa the late ’90s and early 2000s, there existed a fantastically keep-you-guessing band called The Negro Problem. This relatively oddball combo was led by Mark Stewart, aka Stew, a Fairfax District kid with many fresh thoughts about how to mix theoretically disparate musical stuff. Picture Al Green fronting The Beach Boys, to compress it crudely. Stew was assisted in this by a sterling cast of L.A.’s best non-superstar musicians, including bassist/co-composer Heidi Rodewald.
Post–Negro Problem, Stew made several highly regarded solo albums. He and Rodewald moved to New York and in short order the then-couple’s semiautobiographical theatrical piece, Passing Strange, won great praise and a successful run on Broadway.
Recently, Stew and Heidi, as they now call their musical partnership, returned with a new song cycle, Notes of a Native Song, inspired by writer James Baldwin. Black, gay, American-in-Paris Baldwin, whose centennial we celebrate next year, has been a longtime fascination of Stew’s. The opportunity to stage a show in his honor was like manna from heaven.
“It was suggested to me by people at Harlem Stage,” he says by phone from his home in New York. “I was like, hell yeah. That was a dream-come-true commission.”
A project of such seeming magnitude would likely carry heavy sociopolitical expectations, so a lot passed through Stew’s mind about what he did not want to do with his Baldwin homage. Ultimately, what he and Heidi came up with is not an homage at all. Stew says he felt an obligation to play a bit fast and loose with Baldwin’s towering legacy.
“I was never worried about doing it wrong,” he says. “What I didn’t want to do was black cultural cheerleading. I wanted to deal with Baldwin in the same way that if someone asked me to make a show about Keith Richards or William S. Burroughs or something. I mean, Baldwin liked to smoke and drink and do things that all my other teenage heroes liked to do. I see him more in the tradition of rock & rollers than whatever the fuck an ‘activist’ is. He marched with you, but he never wore anybody’s T-shirt, you know what I mean?”
Thus Stew and Heidi’s Native Song tunes skew sweetly soulful, head-noddingly funky and humorously caustic, juxtaposing a musical multifariousness with Baldwin’s own surprising leaps around the complexities and contradictions of his life and times.
The show opened in Harlem, "on Baldwin’s home turf, in front of many people who knew him personally, like Toni Morrison," Stew explains. "And it was not like [I was] telling the story in a reverent kind of way about one of their hometown boys, one of their gods. I was looking at it as an opportunity to mess with this Harlem audience and engage in a loving way, like, ‘Here’s my James Baldwin and I love him enough that I want to show you how he changed and shaped my life — but I’ve got to tell you in a truthful way. My Baldwin is maybe not your Baldwin, but my Baldwin counts just as much as yours does.’”
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Now we'll get to see how Native Song plays out in L.A., a town that, strangely, passed on the chance to present the award-winning Passing Strange. Notes of a Native Song has been performed in a variety of places, including Abu Dhabi, to significantly differing reactions.
“When we play Philadelphia, people are a little bit on the edge,” Stew says. “In Chicago it’s always very intense, because it’s still segregated and race is such an issue; they listen very closely and it’s like pin-drop and it’s really scary. In New York they’re like, ‘Ah, we get the joke, we’re New Yorkers.’ San Francisco’s like, 'Oh yeah, we’re all very liberal, we understand.'”
Stew and his gifted arranger/co-writer Heidi each claim that the other wrote the bulk of the music for Notes of a Native Song, so let's say the two split it up about 50/50. As the charmingly self-deprecating Rodewald puts it, “Stew is an amazing songwriter, and I’m always excited to be a part of something where Stew has a lot to say. The James Baldwin thing, it’s so cool to be a part of this.”
Stew & Heidi perform Notes of a Native Song Weds.-Sat., Dec. 14-17, at REDCAT. Tickets and more info.