‘Notes of a Native Song’ review: beguiled by Baldwin

In admiring yet refusing to canonize James Baldwin, Stew and The Negro Problem's music theater work reveals the writer's legacy of resistance to simple definition

“This ain’t your mama’s Baldwin country,” Stew glowered at the audience at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall at the outset of his September 2017 Time Based Arts Festival performance. Actually, even before the performance technically started, he’d warned us that “this is not a safe space,” and asked those who might be easily offended by art to move close to the aisles so they could flee if necessary.

With a challenge like that, it was a little disappointing to encounter nothing so scary in the singer-songwriter’s James Baldwin-inspired Notes of a Native Song. No doubt the line, and Stew’s (probably tongue in cheek) concern, stemmed from the show’s debut last year in Baldwin’s old home territory of Harlem, in front of people who knew the great mid-20th century American writer.

Stew and The Negro Problem performed ‘Notes of a Native Song’ at TBA ’17.

When his teenage daughter encountered Baldwin’s landmark semi-autobiographical novel Go Tell It on the Mountain in school, Stew re-read it for the first time since he was also a young adolescent — and suddenly realized how deeply Baldwin’s life had affected his own creative path since then. When a coincident opportunity arose to produce a show at a Harlem theater space as part of a Baldwin celebration, Stew and his longtime creative (and one-time personal) partner Heidi Rodewald created Notes on a Native Song, punning on the title of Baldwin’s celebrated essay collection Notes of a Native Son.

As he was careful to promise well in advance, the performance turned out to be more about Stew than Baldwin, more current events than history. And there’s never anything wrong with that, but actually, I left the show wanting to know more about Stew’s own Baldwin inspiration, as well as more about Baldwin himself.

The pairing between artist and inspiration seemed apt in several ways. Both were African American artists who felt the need to explore their own identities in Europe. In his Tony Award winning 2006 musical Passing Strange, set mostly in Berlin and Amsterdam, Stew even name-checks Baldwin, who died 30 years ago in France.

And although he never explicitly touched on it in the show, both resisted the kind of pigeonholing and expectations laid on them — not least by some other African Americans — to conform to the “correct” image of an artist, and especially a black artist. For Baldwin, as a couple of episodes demonstrated, it was 1960s civil rights leaders who wanted him to lend his presence and reputation to marches and other Black Power events. Stew also noted the homophobia of some black activists that further alienated the gay Baldwin from them.

For Stew, I suspect, it’s his music’s refusal to follow the funk/hip hop/soul formulae of other African American pop musicians. Instead, his sound is as much influenced by the “white” indie pop of other LA-area musicians where he grew up and, over the past decade, musical theater, where he’s scored tremendous success with Passing Strange and subsequent theatrical works like his recent The People Speak, inspired by the life and work of historian Howard Zinn. You could hear as much Ray Davies and Loudon Wainwright and Randy Newman as, say, Prince in Stew’s songs. (“An obscure Ultravox reference in a James Baldwin show,” Stew chuckled at one point. “That’s me.”)

Like any other artist, any other human, of whatever color, Stew and Baldwin are simply too multidimensional to confine to any two-dimensional category — political, musical, racial. And complex artists are notorious for their refusal to conform. I half expected Stew to bust out a cover of one of Bob Dylan’s caustic kiss-offs to the political folkies who wanted him to be Woody or Pete and keep singing political songs and strumming his acoustic guitar: “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” or “It Ain’t Me Babe.” (Dylan and Baldwin crossed paths in late 1963 a few months before he recorded the latter. Hmmm…)

James Baldwin, center.

In that context, that mock-fierce opening line about “not your mama’s Baldwin” makes sense. Especially in front of the original Harlem audience, Stew didn’t want to make a worshipful tribute that might flatten Baldwin into a poster boy — as he put it, “a perfect black hero” — in exactly the way he resisted during his life. Accordingly, anyone seeking a documentary of Baldwin’s life won’t find it here. (Raoul Peck’s aptly titled I Am Not Your Negro, which opened this year’s Portland International film festival, might be a better place to start.) Instead, it throws up fractured images from the writer’s life which then serve, more or less, as inspirations for Stew’s sometimes poignant, often funny, always smart songs on those themes. Several songs explicitly referencing Baldwin’s life really hit home, especially an affecting sequence showing scenes from Istanbul, where the writer spent an important sojourn. And Stew resolutely refused hagiography, likening Baldwin’s lese majeste literary criticism of his patron Richard Wright, who opened the doors to the literary world to the younger writer, to an unknown young rapper betraying Kanye West today.

Although 1960s references abounded, like a cheeky image of Baldwin photoshopped onto the famous With the Beatles/Meet the Beatles album cover, and rubbing shoulders with the Fabs during their transcendental sojourn in Rishikesh, India, and namechecks of Charles Mingus and Eric Dolphy, much of the show was entirely contemporary. One harrowing song used the recording of George Zimmerman’s conversation with police just before his unprovoked gunning down of Trayvon Martin, though I never heard Stew explicitly mention either name. And he encored with a sober ditty about a “Clown with a Nuclear Code,” which only became more ominous with the recent North Korean scare. It wasn’t really clear whether all the songs were part of the Native Song project or just cool Stew songs. Didn’t really matter much to me.

Stew leavened the anger and heaviness with his usual sharp, often self deprecating humor, both in impromptu sidebar remarks and sometimes in song, like an anti-Florida screed that reached back to the stolen 2000 presidential election follies to more recent craziness. “Florida, you’re killing me,” Stew and Rodewald sang. “When I retire / as an old Jew/ There’s no way/ I’m gonna retire/ in you.” In an aside, he snickered, “It’s safer to let the white woman sing the chorus in that one.” For all the legit and compelling anger in this show, Stew never lost his irrepressible, impish sense of humor.

Performed by Stew (in excellent voice this night) and Rodewald (under their old band moniker The Negro Problem) on guitars, bass, and keyboards with Todd Bishop on drums, the music, as usual, cheerfully disregarded categories — a blues here, glam pop there, a Velvety Lou Reed riff-based number, a shot of gospel, a dose of funk, even a little jazzy background.

Throughout, Stew’s admiration for Baldwin shone. But the risk of creating a show about someone you’ve admired your whole life is that you already know and feel so much about him, it’s easy to fail to connect the dots for audience members who don’t know as much about that subject, or your relationship to him. In the end, Stew never quite managed the difficult dramatic tasks of showing us enough about Baldwin’s life, or his own connection to it, to bring the audience the full degree of resonance he found in the writer’s struggle. It’s just too personal.

But if as a theater piece, Stew’s Notes seem sketchy and incomplete, despite the show’s loose roughness, he did deliver some potent music and stories, and piqued us into exploring Baldwin’s life ourselves. That alone makes Notes of a Native Song a worthy tribute from one great artist to another. And it also showed another valuable legacy: Stew’s own courageous refusal to be pinned down, which has fueled the continuing creative evolution of one of our most fascinatingly undefinable musicians.

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