the negro problem

‘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.

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