By Stew and Heidi Rodewald
A Luminato Presentation at the Spiegeltent,
David Pecaut Square, Toronto. June 15-18.
Two geniuses—a literary and a musical one—form a potent combination in what is subtitled “an irreverent homage to the original black-punk-novelist the late James Baldwin.” Baldwin, of course, is the literary genius, while Stew is the musical one. But this is not a linear documentary about Tony Award-winning Stew’s homage to trail-blazing polemicist, essayist, and novelist Baldwin. It is what Stew casually calls “a somewhat intimate relationship” over 80 minutes of performance time. The relationship is actually threefold: Stew’s with Baldwin; Stew’s with his audience; literature with music. And it rocks with high-energy amplitude (perhaps over-amplified for the size of the cozy Spiegeltent) in a thrilling interplay of music (with four musicians supporting Stew), video (by Stew and Joan Grossman), lighting (by K.J. Hardy) and spoken word—or to put it another way, a blast of psychedelic soul, pop rock, and twisted jazz, with Stew’s casual throwaway humour, stinging satire, and gritty speaking and singing voice, backed up by his band called somewhat ironically The Negro Problem. Ironic because of the other (notorious) “N” word implied in the name, and because the band has some non-black musicians, who are hardly anybody’s problem, except those who are imprisoned by their own colour and ignorance.
“I’m so fuckin’ tired of James Baldwin,” sighs 55-year old Stew in his dark glasses, hat, cravat, and rumpled suit. He feels there is too great a disparity between Baldwin’s alluring literary elegance, certainty, and clarity and his own “shit.” Although both men were expatriates in Europe at different times, of course, and both have been celebrated for artistic genius, Stew feels swallowed by the void left by Baldwin. His song cycle (in which Baldwin is conceptualized as a blues singer, and occasionally in an imagined film scenario) is really a trip into Baldwin country (where there is no zip code, and which is not simply Harlem, Compton, Paris, or Istanbul). So, it is definitely not a documentary play; it has “no well-kept plot to grow.” It riffs without apology, omits some important Baldwin titles, hardly quotes from its primary literary sources, and yet is a full-size, full-volume tribute channelled through Stew’s musical investigation and experimental reactions.
Sometimes the lighting is aggressively white or blue (bathing the audience along with the band) but it never overwhelms the piece. Baldwin never comes across as a saint or flawless literary militant. He is presented as a dissenting black brother who was not racially contracted to every black man’s work—certainly not to Richard Wright’s. Wright and his 20-year old impoverished African-American Bigger Thomas in Native Son (a landmark black novel in 1940), are taken down by both Baldwin and, therefore, indirectly by Stew, for not showing what is really human about black boys. But Stew makes a baffling comment on Baldwin in the process, charging that Baldwin “made a butler out of his rage.” Hard to reconcile the phrase and image with the reality of Baldwin’s vehement eloquence, his gravitas, and bold courage in the context of American society of his time. As a recent film documentary shows, Baldwin was nobody’s negro. There is sometimes a sense that Stew is straining for strikingly “cool” imagery, as when he represents Baldwin as “a prose slinger with six-gun grammar” in a literary journal.
Nevertheless, Stew’s offhand, throwaway satiric (often self-satiric) wit pays dividends in other ways. Baldwin was correct: racism was much bigger than Bigger Thomas. Stew connects the theme to the sensationally outrageous murder in Florida of hoody wearing teenager Trayvon Martin by self-styled vigilante, psychically damaged, mentally infirm George Zimmerman. A case, contends Stew in a powerful song, of Black meeting Brown, where Black stayed Black but where Brown turned White. Stew explores issues of colour, race, love, power, and sexuality in the conviction that lyric and music are as potent as any militant speech. His final two numbers in the song cycle bring this truth home. “Florida,” once home to Stepin Fetchit and Ben Vereen, is a bitterly satiric song with a double edge because it builds up only to undercut the raddled state for its “hanging chads and lynching boys.” This is followed by “Sonny’s Blues,” with its exhortation “Let the music kill the poison.” Perhaps an anti-climax in terms of power but it rounds out this highly personal, provocative exploration in song of Baldwin’s lasting influence on the American conscience. Notes of a Native Song is a great successor to Stew’s ground-breaking, award-winning musical Passing Strange. It deserves a longer run. Will no Toronto producer bring it back for a wider audience?