by Carol Rocamora
There’s a lot going on in The Total Bent, Stew’s smashing new show that’s raising the roof at the Public Theater with its sensational score, moving story, and compelling context. A formidable composer/writer/performer, Stew continues to develop his theme of what it means to be a musician – a journey that began with Passing Strange, his 2007 show at the Public that catapulted him center stage in the downtown musical theatre scene.
In The Total Bent, Stew (who wrote the text and composed the music with Heidi Rodewald) chooses Montgomery, Alabama and the Civil Rights era as his setting. He tells the story of an African-American father and son who are struggling to make their mark as musicians in white America while at the same time clashing with each other. Joe Roy (a fabulous Vondie Curtis Hall) is an itinerant preacher and composer/performer whose music is rooted in gospel. He wants to go mainstream, to please white audiences, and be successful. “Christian-easy-listening-church-music that white folks would enjoy,” is the style Joe Roy promotes. His son, Marty (the equally fabulous Ato Blankson-Wood), in contrast, represents a new generation, swept up in the sixties’ spirit of protest and rock ‘n’ roll. He rebels against his father, challenging him with songs like: “Jesus ain’t sittin’ in the back of the bus!” Calling him an “archaic Uncle Tom sell-out,” Marty breaks away from his father, and with the support of a white British producer, embraces the changing times and finds his own voice both professionally and personally – as a composer, performer, and gay man.
Director Joanna Settle makes dynamic use of the Anspacher’s ¾-round space, placing seven musicians onstage for the entire two-hour performance. They play Stew’s spirited score – a unique blend of gospel, jazz, rock, funk, and blues – featuring titles like “That’s why he’s Jesus and you’re not, whitey!,” “Why do Negroes still believe in God?” and “Get up on the cross!” Song follows after song, crescendoing to an explosive twenty-minute finale, during which Marty and two terrific back-ups (Jahi Kearse and Curtis Wiley) dance and sing with a combined charisma reminiscent of the Jackson Five, and more.
Like August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (set in the 1920s) and George C. Wolfe’s Shuffle Along (also set in the 1920s, now on Broadway), The Total Bent addresses the struggles of the black musician in a specific chapter of American history. The context of Stew’s show is so-called “’Blunt-gomery, Alabama,” where laws forbid blacks and whites to integrate in numerous contexts. Stew’s characters struggle to express themselves in a turbulent era, to integrate various musical traditions and embrace new ones, to develop their respective voices, and ultimately to sing: “This is who I really am!” As such, The Total Bent celebrates the vital importance of music in the evolution of African-American cultural identity.
Throughout this wild ride, Stew wanders freely among the musicians and performers alike, playing guitar accompaniment to the score he created. His powerful persona, his urgent music and his soulful, poetic lyrics are the flames that ignite this show. “Music is salvation through sound,” says one of his characters – and you can see that light in the composer’s beaming face.
The show’s title comes from Martin Luther King’s 1968 sermon “Unfulfilled Dreams.” King, in turn, took it from a phrase in the eighth chapter of First Kings – namely, “the total bent of our lives.” We can anticipate more creativity from this exciting musical artist, as he continues his own lifelong journey of self-discovery and self-definition.
The Total Bent, text by Stew, music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, directed by Joanna Settle, at the Public Theater, 445 Lafayette Street, through June 26. Photo: Joan Marcus