By Sarah A. Spitz
Mark Stewart (aka Stew), a black kid from the Fairfax neighborhood, formed an award-winning indie rock band in the 1990s ironically called Stew and The Negro Problem — “ironically” because Stew did not live up to “expectations” of what “black music” should be and chose his own musical path. In 1997, the band was joined by Heidi Rodewald, a multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter.
Now called Stew and Heidi, the previously romantically-linked couple is still collaborating artistically to create unique staged musical performances. Their latest is “Notes of a Native Song,” at REDCAT in downtown L.A., which opened Wednesday night, and due to popular demand has added a matinee performance this Saturday at 3 p.m.
They partnered on the musical “Passing Strange,” and won the Tony Award for Best Book. This latest piece is based on the writings of James Baldwin, an iconic African American novelist, essayist and playwright whose best known works include for “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” “The Fire Next Time,” and “Notes of a Native Son.”
“Passing Strange” began as a performance of Stew’s songs at Lincoln Center, where a theatrical producer suggested he put them together as a musical. Development took place at Sundance Theatre Lab and it debuted at Berkeley Rep, moving next to the prestigious off-Broadway Public Theatre, then on to Broadway’s Belasco Theatre where it won Tony, Obie and Drama Desk Awards in 2008. Spike Lee filmed the production for the PBS Great Performances series and it was broadcast in 2010.
That production told the semi-autobiographical story of Stew’s experiences as a young middle class black man, raised in a churchly tradition, who moves to Europe to seek his identity, both personal and creative, in a quest to become “more real.” There he is able to “pass” both as a “poor artist” and as a cool expatriate L.A. musician, ostensibly representing the struggle of African Americans at home. The façade becomes more difficult to maintain, and ultimately he discovers that what matters most to him are art and love, with love above all else.
In “Notes of a Native Song,” Stew is inspired by the trailblazing Baldwin, but he isn’t telling a biographical tale; rather this song cycle represents the influence of Baldwin’s writings on Stew’s own artistic development.
Described as a “concert novel,” it’s a multimedia combo of rock, R&B and jazz, video and spoken word in a song cycle confronting the issues of gender, race and class distinction that Baldwin wrote about, while celebrating the writer’s lasting impact.
Of note, Marty Beller has been drumming with Stew and Heidi for more than 15 years. And their piano player, Art Terry, first met and worked with Stew in 1976 in L.A. and the two lived and performed together in Holland and Germany from 1986–1987. Their experiences are reflected in “Passing Strange.”
About “Notes of a Native Song,” Stew told L.A. Weekly that he didn’t want this show to be “black cultural cheerleading.” When it opened on Baldwin’s home turf in Harlem, the audience consisted of people who had known and loved Baldwin. Stew’s attitude toward that audience, he told the Weekly, was, “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.”
“Notes of a Native Song” will be performed tonight through Saturday night at 8:30 p.m. with a bonus matinee on Saturday at 3 p.m. For more information and for tickets, go to https://www.redcat.org/ or call the box office at (213) 237-2800. REDCAT is located at 631 W. 2nd Street, adjacent to Walt Disney Concert Hall.
HIDDEN CULTURAL GEMS
You may not be aware that Santa Monica, Pacific Palisades, and other parts of Los Angeles were a haven for Jewish intellectual and artistic refugees before and during World War II.
Villa Aurora, located in the Palisades, was the longtime home of a fierce critic of Nazism, novelist Lion Feuchtwanger and his wife Marta, and became a central gathering place for the German émigré community, including such notables as Kurt Weill, Fritz Lang, Franz and Anna Werfel, Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann. The latter two maintained such an intense dislike for one another that they had to be invited on separate occasions.
Nowadays Villa Aurora (worth visiting) is an artists’ residence and historic landmark offering cultural programming to the public, supported by the German government. USC runs the Feuchtwanger Memorial Library, which contains not only his writings but 20,000 books from his personal collection.
In news you may have missed, the Federal Republic of Germany announced in mid-November that it was purchasing the former home of revered novelist Thomas Mann, also in the Palisades, and that Villa Aurora would run the Thomas Mann House.
Perhaps best known for “The Magic Mountain” and “Doctor Faustus,” Nobel laureate Mann was a towering figure in European letters whose resonance still echoes today. Like Villa Aurora, the Thomas Mann House will house artists from both sides of the Atlantic for cultural exchanges.
Find out more and go visit Villa Aurora. More info here: http://www.villa-aurora.org/en/.
Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, now retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.