by: Paulanne Simmons
In Notes of a Native Song, the culminating piece in Harlem Stage’s 14-month celebration of novelist, essayist, playwright and poet James Baldwin, Stew mixes songs, text and video in an irreverent and original style that most probably would have made Baldwin smile. As in his Tony award-winning musical, Passing Strange, Stew shares composing credits with Heidi Rodewald. There is no directing credit. One suspects Stew does what he wants.
But this magnificent score is played by a fantastic band that travels seamlessly from blues to funk to psychedelic to rock to bee-bop in a breathtaking kaleidoscope of sound (swirling colored lights help too). Rodewald (bass/guitars), Urbano Sanchez (percussion), Art Terry (piano) and Mike Muggins (woodwinds) provide the rhythms that accentuate and underpin Stew’s words, whether spoken or sung.
Some may hear elements of rap in these songs, but they really owe more to Bob Dylan, whose poetic genius juxtaposes the everyday and the sublime. There’s also evidence of Dylan’s moral judgements, biblical allusions and tongue-in-cheek humor. Or maybe it’s just Stew being his larger-than-life self.
Stew says he sees Baldwin as a blues singer, and throughout most of the text, he sticks to the writer and his works, while book covers and Baldwin’s face – sometimes replacing that of the Beatles or Jimi Hendrix – appear on the screen behind the performers. However, we don’t so much learn about Baldwin as see him through Stew’s “fan-boy” lens. Stew also ventures into the broad landscape of the African-American experience. There are references to the Trayvon Martin case and the evils of Florida.
Those who expected a traditional reverential work might have been disappointed (or perhaps delighted) with this piece. Stew points out that Baldwin spent much of his life in Paris, and that he may have spoken for Harlem, but as an adult he was not part of it. He notes that Baldwin claimed one of his biggest influences was Henry James, a white man, something which did not please all of his fans.
For those unfamiliar with Baldwin’s life and writing, it can be hard to follow Stew’s journey. Many of the references are obscure to those who don’t know the characters in Baldwin’s novels or the various places where he lived. But it is not necessary to understand every reference to enjoy Notes of a Native Song. All you need is an open mind and a beating heart.
Harlem Stage Gatehouse, 150 Convent Avenue, at 135th Street, Hamilton Heights; 212-281-9240, harlemstage.org. Closed June 7.
Photos: Marc Millman