I attended services at the church of Stew (and Heidi), aka The REDCAT, last night. Preaching now through Saturday, the charismatic musician, raconteur and philosophizer delivers his very personal musings on life filtered through the prism of James Baldwin, whose words and works supply the skeleton to which the production clings. Stew, the LA native who made his name in the 90's as the lead singer/songwriter of The Negro Problem, moved to New York some years ago, where he says he felt more welcome to create theater. He was awarded a Tony in 2008 for "Passing Strange," a memorable and refreshingly told musical memoir of his growing up in South Central and exploring the world to find out who he was.
With the show at the REDCAT, "The Negro Problem: Notes of a Native Song," he has crafted a performance that pairs his lyrics to music written by his co-composer Heidi Rodewald, with a razor-sharp band providing a haunting counterpoint to his thoughtfully political, poignant and amusing observations. Constantly breaking through the fourth wall, he makes you feel as though you're in his living room as he weaves threads from Baldwin's writing and biography with songs or stories about George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, James Baldwin vs. Richard Wright, Florida, Kanye West, his teacher Mrs. Markham (who he says taught him like "you gave a fuck"), a time when ideas used to matter, John Cage and Morton Subotnick and Baldwin's writings on jazz and musicians:
"Describe the place the listening took me...describe the grace the listening gave me," Stew sings in his final piece. It's a show that hits many notes, entertains while it makes you think and appreciate the poetry, artistry and vision of a unique pair of storytellers.
James Baldwin was also on the mind of documentarian Raoul Peck when he began to put together a documentary on Baldwin's writings and spoken word called "I am not your Negro," which screened for Oscar considerations and opens Feb. 3. The riveting and powerful film is well worth viewing for so many reasons, the least of which is how timely and still sadly relevant Baldwin's analysis of American race relations was. The film brings home how much work our country still has to do, something that was brought into sharp focus with the election of Donald Trump. One point the film drives home for me is how television in America has changed. Rather than Fox News providing a megaphone for viewpoints that only affirm what its audience already believes, reality shows pushing mind-numbing inanity and late night television hosts like Jimmy Fallon filling the air with trivial time-wasters, in Baldwin's time, the late '60s, programs like Dick Cavett's show provided an opportunity for intelligent and critical conversation and an exchange of ideas that really made you uncomfortable, and made you think, question and listen. Given the state of our country we need that more than ever. And we should be grateful for films and theater like these works that bring the visionary and searing words and spirit of Baldwin into the spotlight.