“Won’t you follow me down to Baldwin Country? This ain’t your mama’s Baldwin Country.” The show opens with offhand remarks by Stew, a large black man up front at a microphone. Behind him instruments and equipment for his band, “The Negro Problem,” sprawl across the stage. Behind them is a projection screen. It’s a concert layout, but this isn’t a concert. It’s more a musically illustrated discourse. Stew, writer, co-writer of the music, and guitarist, talks us through the story with a mix of scripted banter and funny off the cuff remarks interspersed with very clever songs. There’s so much virtuosity, talent, personality, and groove in the band, you can’t help but love these musicians. They are seriously haloed creations. Among them is Heidi Rodewald, who collaborated on the music.
Stew keeps it light. No textbook lecture here. But he assures anyone who thinks black people are all singing “We Shall Overcome” in unison: “It’s horseshit.” The show’s title, NOTES OF A NATIVE SONG, is a nice twist on James Baldwin’s essay, NOTES OF A NATIVE SON. Baldwin’s title refers to Richard Wright’s NATIVE SON. Stew touches on the Wright/Baldwin split over their different approaches to race relations. While renowned Wright centered on anger and protest, Baldwin tamed his rage, believing that hatred destroys the hater. In May I saw Stew/Rodewald’s THE TOTAL BENT at the Public Theater. That story, distantly Baldwinesque, concerns a talented young black man and his preacher father. It’s reminiscent of Baldwin’s essay that takes you through his hostilities, revelations, and relationship with his bitter preacher father. For this song cycle Stew corrals his disparate yet related thoughts and gets them across to a large, primarily white audience. An agile thinker, nothing if not complicated, he apparently strays on tangents, while essentially remaining Baldwin-centric. This isn’t outright hagiography. He takes issue with some things in his hero’s persona. But basically, yeah, maybe he is canonizing James Baldwin and his eloquent, personal, and profound writing. Commenting on a short story, Stew says, “Like everything that Baldwin does it was completely mind-altering.” NOTES OF A NATIVE SONG is about where Baldwin took Stew, and where Stew and the band are taking us.
[Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad Street] September 8 -11, 2016; fringearts.com/notes-native-song: