Los Angeles Theater/Music Preview: NOTES OF A NATIVE SONG (Stew & The Negro Problem at REDCAT)

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by Tony Frankel on December 14, 2016

in Music,Theater-Los Angeles


Los Angeles native Stew, born Mark Stewart, is one of today’s most fascinating songwriters. He has released both solo albums and with his band, The Negro Problem. He became well known to the theater world in 2008, when he made the transition from the pop-rock scene to Broadway. The show for which he wrote the book and score is Passing Strange, which–from a musical point of view–is better than Spring Awakening.


It’s almost like a song cycle with a story. It’s a very funny, wildly inventive gem about shaping your identity. Backed by a rocking quartet that includes co-composer Heidi Rodewald on bass, Stew himself acted and sang as the narrator, leading us through the coming of age of his hero, Youth, from Southern California to Amsterdam to Berlin and back. The surprising score has energy and depth, and the songs can be hard-hitting, but Stew writes particularly lovely ballads, some even heartbreaking.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESNow, Stew, who won a Tony Award for Passing Strange,  has created a new show; it’s a collage of songs, text and video inspired by James Baldwin’s brave and visionary proclivity for airing uncomfortable truths as celebratory events of poetry and beauty. Provocative themes will be attached to wonderfully catchy tunes with head-nodding grooves for your listening pleasure.

Co-composed with Rodewald, Notes of a Native Song, performed with her and The Negro Problem, opens tonight at REDCAT and plays through Dec. 17, 2016. This is a sweet-sounding homage to Baldwin which, when created in 2014, coincided with what would have been his 90th birthday. Like Passing Strange, it’s not so easily definable; at first, it may seem like a song cycle or an alt concert, but at the end of the night you may feel as though you’ve seen a metatheatrical play.


Singer-songwriter-author-guitarist Stew has an amazing following. Because this weekend’s run is almost sold out, a Saturday matinee at 3:00 has been added.


James Arthur Baldwin (8/2/1924—12/1/1987) was an American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic. His essays, as collected in Notes of a Native Son (1955), explore palpable yet unspoken intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in Western societies, most notably in mid-20th-century America, and their inevitable if unnameable tensions. Some Baldwin essays are book-length, for instance The Fire Next Time (1963), No Name in the Street (1972), and The Devil Finds Work (1976).


Baldwin’s novels and plays fictionalize fundamental personal questions and dilemmas amid complex social and psychological pressures thwarting the equitable integration not only of blacks, but also of gay and bisexual men, while depicting some internalized obstacles to such individuals’ quests for acceptance. Such dynamics are prominent in Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room, written in 1956 well before gay rights were widely espoused in America.


photos by Earl Dax, Steven Menendez
and Sara Krulwich (The New York Times) courtesy of REDCAT

Stew & The Negro Problem
and Heidi Rodewald
(Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater)
631 West 2nd St (under Disney Hall)
plays October 14-17, 2016
for tickets, call 213-972-8001 or visit REDCAT

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