Tag Archives: The Negro Problem

Stew’s stoked about James Baldwin

Stew in the Harlem Stage theater, where his "Notes of a Native Song" premieres in June. (© 2015, Steven P. Marsh/willyoumissme.com)

Stew in the Harlem Stage theater on March 11. His new show “Notes of a Native Song” premieres there in June. (© 2015, Steven P. Marsh/willyoumissme.com)

‘Passing Strange’ creator to challenge and honor author in Harlem Stage commission

Stew rarely takes the predictable route — at least in public.

So when the pop-song writer and founder of The Negro Problem ook the floor at Harlem Stage on Wednesday night for “Behind the Curtain: Stew,” a talk about his upcoming show in the beautiful Gatehouse theater, I had few expectations.

Would he talk? Would he offer a cynical take on “Notes of a Native Song,” the piece he’s creating as part of the Year of James Baldwin, which celebrates the 90th anniversary of his birth? Would he read from the show in progress? Would he perform some of the songs?

He did a little of most of those thing — with remarkable engagement and not a touch of cynicism.

The Gatehouse, a Romanesque Revival former water pumping station that's home to Harlem Stage. (© 2015, Steven P. Marsh/willyoumissme.com)

The Gatehouse, a Romanesque Revival former water pumping station that’s home to Harlem Stage. (© 2015, Steven P. Marsh/willyoumissme.com)

Maybe the venue — in Harlem, in front of a crowd that seemed earnest and engaged, exhibiting little of the hipster affect often on display at the downtown and Brooklyn venues where Stew more often appears — had something to do with it.

But it was more than that.

“When artists talk, they, for the most part, lie,” Stew said at the outset of the evening.

I’m in no position to judge his truthfulness, but his presentation came across as warm, personable, and, honest, without a trace of pose or ennui. Stew appeared deeply engaged with his subject — his reaction to Baldwin, and Baldwin’s  relationship with mentor and impediment Richard Wright.

If the artist was lying, it was a beautiful lie.

Stew held forth with only his guitar to accompany him as he opened the program with his laugh-inducing song “Black Men Ski.” While it wasn’t clear that he intends to include that song in the June show, it set the tone for the fun to follow.

He performed four other songs and fragments that apparently are part of the show, at least as it stands at this point in its development. Based on lyrical fragments, I’ll dub the three fleshed-out numbers “Brave, Suffering, Beautiful,” “Me, and You, and Jimmy,” and “Don’t Pray for the Boy Preacher” (with music, he said, by his longtime collaborator Heidi Rodewald). The fourth, of which he sang just a fragment — with some help from the audience with a spaghetti Western backing vocalization — cast Baldwin and Wright as gunslingers at High Noon in “Paris town.”

Given Stew’s position as a Tony-winning writer of rock musicals and other musical plays, such as “Passing Strange,”  you might expect “Notes of a Native Song” will be another of those, given that it will have its premiere in a respected theater.

But, based on Stew’s description, that’s not the case. He said it’ll feature “some musicians” performing the songs with scripted rants between them, because he’s comfortable with the structure of a concert.

And don’t expect the “Ken Burns, PBS James Baldwin” in this show, either. Stew promises the unexpurgated Baldwin — a detail he underscored with his unrestrained language throughout the evening — including a declaration of love for speaking all of the names that used to label African Americans over the years.

Stew seems as engaged and exited by this project as anything I’ve seen him do in years. So by that measure, it’s a safe bet that “Notes of a Native Song” will be a gem.

Get your tickets now, because it’s a short run in a small theater (just 200 seats) and it will sell out quickly.

“Notes of a Native Song” will receive six performances (fours shows at 7:30 p.m., plus two 2 p.m. matinees) from Jun 3-7, at Harlem Stage, 150 Convent Avenue, Manhattan. Tickets for the show, featuring cabaret-style seating, are $55 and available by tapping or clicking here. Call 212-281-9240 or tap or click here for more information Harlem Stage and its offerings.

Stew pulls back the (figurative) curtain on James Baldwin

Stew at Joe's Pub (© 2012 Steven P. Marsh/willyoumissme.com)

Stew at Joe’s Pub (© 2012 Steven P. Marsh/willyoumissme.com)

Stew says he’s not using a curtain, so the title of  “Behind the Curtain: Stew” at Harlem Stage on Wednesday, March 11, may be a bit of a misnomer.

But I won’t quibble, since the program will give the audience a peek at the influences and creative process of the pop-song master who founded The Negro Problem and won a Tony for the musical “Passing Strange”

The program is a prelude to Harlem Stage’s world premiere presentation of Stew’s “Notes of a Native Song,” described as ” 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.”

Stew, a Los Angeles native, has long been inspired by Baldwin, and name checks him prominently in “Passing Strange” as “Little Jimmy Baldwin.”

You might expect that Stew is going to offer a preview of the piece. But anything can happen,.

Here’s a Facebook post in which Stew describes Wednesday’s gig:

It’ll be more than a discussion – I’m going to preview some tunes from the Baldwin show – talk about JB’s influence on me and Passing Strange and start making people mad with my views on so-called “socially-engaged art.” It will be fun and then we’ll eat.

It will without a doubt be entertaining and insightful. But best to arrive without too many preconceptions. Anything could happen.

Harlem Stage commissioned “Notes” as part of The Year of James Baldwin celebration that began last Aug.2, the 90th anniversary of Baldwin’s birth.

“Behind the Curtain: Stew” is at 7:30 p.m. at Harlem Stage, 150 Convent Ave. in Manhattan. Tickets are $10 and available by tapping or clicking here. Call 212-281-9240 for more information.

Attending the preview event gets you a 20 percent discount on the show, which runs June 3-7. Just use code DDOHS to get the reduced price on as many as four tickets.

Stew & Heidi Rodewald’s ‘Family Album’ conquers Oregon Shakespeare Festival (video)

Family_746x420If you find yourself in Oregon before the end of August, be sure to set aside a few hours to check out the world premiere of the latest musical play by Stew and Heidi Rodewald of The Negro Problem at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.

For fans, “Family Album” will seem familiar, as they’ve incorporated songs fans have heard TNP play in concert or in other, less-structured, theater pieces over the years. And charismatic guitarist Christian Gibbs, who was a linchpin in Stew and Heidi’s breakthrough show, “Passing Strange,” steps forward to take a larger role in this show.

You’ll see what I mean by the familiarity when you watch the show’s video trailer and read the review in the Los Angeles Times. After you’ve had a look, go here for more information and  to buy tickets.

The show was created with director Joanna Settle, a longtime Stew-and-Heidi collaborator who now heads the theater school at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts.

Tickets have been selling well, but as of today, there are 16 performance dates for which seats are still available. Prices range from $25 to $99. Go here now for more information and tickets. The run ends Aug. 31.

 

Poland will never be the same after Ubu Sings Ubu

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A dangerous man: Tony Torn as Pere Ubu at Joe’s Pub on March 25, 2014. (Photos © 2014, Steven P. Marsh/willyoumissme.com)

About midway through the show on March 25, the flabby, shirtless man on stage at Joe’s Pub — his face still bearing the image of the Polish eagle albeit runny with sweat — stepped out of character as Pere Ubu, the king of Poland.

It’s at this point in the show that I’d be introducing my special guest, said actor Tony Torn But I can’t, he added.

So he invited the audience to join him in a chant:

“Stew has flu. Stew has flu. Stew has flu….”

After chanting that a few times, any disappointment I might have been feeling about the absence of Stew, Tony Award-winning creator of “Passing Strange” and leader of the rock band The Negro Problem, vanished as Torn returned to character and carried on with the set.

Sure, it would have been nice to see Stew sit in with this talented band of actors and musicians. But he deserved to stay home and nurse his illness. And Torn and company managed to provide an extraordinarily entertaining evening without their announced special guest.

I had wondered how Stew fit into this mad plan of creating a band to cover Pere Ubu songs in character from from the Alfred Jarry’s 1896 French play “Ubu Roi.”

Torn, happily, answered the question from stage.

This show, “Ubu Sings Ubu,” wouldn’t have materialized at all if, some years ago, Stew hadn’t let Torn sing what he called “one of his crazy punk rock songs.”

He didn’t explain exactly when or how that occurred, so I can only guess it was in a workshop of some sort. Continue reading

Ubu Sings Ubu: Cleveland cult band’s music torn up and stewed

I was intrigued when I got an email about a show at Joe’s Pub tonight (Tuesday, March 25): the Ubu Sings Ubu Band.

I’ve never been a fan of Pere Ubu, David Thomas’ Cleveland avant-garage band. There’s not a single Ubu track in my iTunes library or in my I’ll-import-them-to-iTunes eventually collection of CDs.

So why would I care about the debut of a band covering songs that I’ll barely recognize?

The band’s video of  “Life Stinks” offered a taste that left me wanting more.

But it’s the personnel list that really got to me: Tony Torn, Dan Safer — and Stew (of  The Negro Problem/”Passing Strange” fame) sitting in as a special guest.

Continue reading

Stew brings ‘The New Stew Review’ to 54 Below (Video)

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There’s still time to grab tickets to see Stew, the Tony Award-winning creator of Broadway’s wildest ride, “Passing Strange,” in the cabaret setting of Manhattan’s 54 Below on Friday or Saturday night.

Stew’s work speaks for itself. He’s created a great deal of thoughtful, memorable, and provocative songs for theater, with “Passing Strange” and other shows, and for clubs as a solo performer and with his band, The Negro Problem.

He’s been a favorite of mine for 15 years. His “New Stew Review” promises a preview of upcoming shows, along with old favorites. If experience is any guide, he’ll offer plenty of surprises.

A trip to 54 Below, in the cellar of Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, Manhattan, can be a bit pricey. But Stew is worth it. Tickets for his shows, which start at 8 p.m., are $40-55, plus a $25 per person minimum. But use the code PUBLIC54 to get a reasonable discount.

Tickets and more information are available here.

Check out the video of Stew and co-creator Heidi Rodewald after the jump.

Continue reading

Stew and Heidi to unveil works in progress in Brooklyn on Nov. 22 and 23

Heidi Rodewald and Stew, creators of Broadway's Passing Strange, are presenting a Brooklyn house party in November to share their works in progress.

Heidi Rodewald and Stew, creators of Broadway’s Passing Strange, are presenting a Brooklyn house party in November to share their works in progress.

Creators of Passing Strange and collaborators in The Negro Problem join the inaugural season at BRIC House

BRIC (Brooklyn Information and Culture), the organization behind the great Celebrate Brooklyn! concert series, is opening the BRIC Arts | Media House to provide a permanent stage for new and established artists to explore their work.

BRIC House, at 647 Fulton Street, next door to the BAM Harvey Theater, formally opens Oct. 3. And it already has a great lineup scheduled, including two-nights of creative mashups from Tony and OBIE Award winner Stew and longtime collaborator and OBIE Award winner Heidi Rodewald.

They’re the people behind Broadway’s Passing Strange and the core members of the band The Negro Problem.

In two performances in November, the pair will unveil a show that includes pieces of several projects they have in development, including three musicals, a video-art work, two song-cycles and poems and songs that likely will show up on their next record in some form.

More information and ticket links after the jump. Continue reading