It's Not A Safe Space But It’s Where We Live: Listening to Stew and the Negro Problem's Notes of a Native Song and Total Bentby Eric Wallach
It’s rare when a new album comes out that affects us so deeply that we are impelled to listen to it repeatedly and write down its lyrics. That’s what happens with Stew and the Negro Problem’s two fresh cast albums, Notes of a Native Song and Total Bent. No stage production is necessary to enjoy these musical explorations—with insightful poetry, slammin’ music, and great performers, something indelible and precious is created.
After Stew’s audacious Passing Strange (2008) earned him a Tony Award for Best Book he followed it up with a couple of shows that continue to disrupt the status quo. Here is music that awakens those who are unconscious and enlivens those who want to “stretch their definition of funky.” Stew’s songs are riddled with revelations about love, the world, and the struggles of being black in America.
Notes of a Native Song begins without prologue or overture stepping directly into a dialogue with the audience and inviting us on a journey that could change our point of view.
Say Harlem girl
With your stress and your curl
Would you like to change worlds
and accompany me … to Baldwin Country?
Native Song is rooted in the wisdom and life of James Baldwin but it’s not a biographical musical, rather it’s a thoughtful introduction to Baldwin’s path toward social awareness and personal truth. The show shakes our shoulders, trying to snap us out of our national amnesia. Pounding drums and wailing strings smash urgently under the thought:
And then you remember, you try to remember
You hope you remember
Did you forget to remember?
Do you know how to remember?
The eclectic music travels from punk to rock to transcendental soundscapes and is decidedly not musical theatre. Both albums topple boundaries and transport us to a place where we can hear each another. Within each song, which exist somewhere between our ears, a whispered message comes through of some secret information or a simple revelation. “Baldwin Country,” the opening song, ends with:
When love meets truth
There’s a lot to forgive
It’s not a safe space
But it’s where we live. …
The journey of Native Song is a determined one and something we should undertake together. Even with Stew’s wicked and ruthless sense of humor there is recognition and understanding. Heidi Rodewald’s sly-toned back-up vocals and bass anchor the music, balancing the angelic with the mischievous. Looking around “Florida,” the scene of Trayvon Martin’s murder and his killer’s acquittal, the scene of “hangin’ chads and lynchin’ boys,” Stew gives it up for the People’s Republic of Brooklyn.
When I turn into an old Jew, I will not retire in you
I’m staying in Brooklyn where the struggle is best
It don't matter if the weather is great
if I have to wear a bulletproof vest.
Heidi sings the refrain on this one, “Florida, Florida you kill me.” But in Brooklyn we live and do what we do because we can. Brooklynites make art imbued with authenticity, intuition, and spunk.
These are qualities that Vondie Curtis Hall, who plays the character Joe Roy, brings to the elder singing preacher in Total Bent. With a sultry commanding voice he confronts us with honesty, righteousness, and venom. When Total Bent begins our jaw drops to the floor, as Stew’s chutzpah knows no bounds.
I did some fucked up shit but he forgot about it
That’s why he’s Jesus and you’re not whitey
There’s no room for complacency. This shocking beginning is followed by the sweet vibrancy of Ato Blankson-Wood’s Marty Roy, Joe’s musician son, who is trying to connect with his audience without God. His refrain echoes, “I’m so black and blue baby.”
The voices, words, and music are enough to make us know justice and peace. It’s no wonder that the Great White Way didn’t herald the second coming of Stew with Total Bent because it lands a solid blow to the establishment through its brazen and direct confrontation.
Shut up and get back on the bus and take a back seat with a smile
Shut up and stop makin’ a fuss and suffer your oppression in style. …
Don’t expect everything tied up neatly. We are left with the knowledge that the fear of love might be what is perpetuating our alienation. If we listen carefully and address each other and ourselves honestly then we might be able to break out of these dark times. Indeed, with Notes of a Native Song and Total Bent we take a step forward toward empathy and understanding.
Eric "Wally" Wallach is a director, writer and Starship18's captain. Visit Wally and his work at www.ebwally.com and www.cosmicruise.com