Stew and the Negro Problem: A Journey Through Genres

Tony winner Stew, with Heidi Rodewald and their band, the Negro Problem, challenge racial preconceptions at the Live Arts Festival & Philly Fringe this week.

By Jeffrey Barg
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Sep. 7, 2010

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Heidi Rodewald (left) and Stew

The lights dim. A round, goateed man with an acoustic guitar steps to the mic and begins a soft, plaintive web of fingerpicking. He introduces himself: His name is Stew. Behind him, a pale, stringbean of a woman named Heidi starts thrumming away on an electric bass. Stew begins to sing.

“The naked Dutch painter in the kitchen does not want to fuck you/ She’s got seventeen boyfriends and an eight o’clock class to get to/ She’s smoking hash all night with some coffee amaretto/ She’s asking stupid questions ’bout my groovy black ghetto/ And the naked Dutch painter in the kitchen does not want to fuck you.”

It’s 2003 at Bryn Mawr’s venerable Point coffeehouse, a venue that won’t exist in a few years. Stew and Heidi are the opening act for musical jokester Dan Bern, and these first lyrics are giving the room the impression he’s one of those “funny” folk singers—good for a laugh, but rarely deep. Stew continues:

“The naked Dutch painter in your bed does not want to sleep with you/ She just feels like being naked, you don’t think that you can take it with her next to you/ She says, ‘Gandhi used to sleep between two naked women’/ But you’re not the Mahatma, that’s a whole ’nother religion/ And the naked Dutch painter in the bed does not want to sleep with you.”

He continues through a bunch more funny verses about his pursuit of the Dutch painter, who spurns his advances at every turn, even shacking up with her threesome-inclined art professor at one point. Then in the last verse, things take a turn, and in a few short lines, the folk singer reveals a depth the Point has rarely seen:

“Then the naked Dutch painter at your door says she finally loves you/ But she said ‘I’ll see you later’ when she saw another naked painter sittin’ in the kitchen with you/ Well she seemed a little shattered, then she got a little pissed/ When she saw that you were flattered by the fact that you’d be missed/ While the naked Dutch painter at your door says … ”

Now it’s 2010, and the years in between were a little kinder to Stew than that elusive naked painter was. There’s an actor in D.C. singing Stew’s incisive lyrics of faded love in Amsterdam now—part of a recent revival of Passing Strange , the critically acclaimed musical Stew starred in and wrote, drawing heavily on his exploits as an expat in Europe (if not that exact painter). The show ran on Broadway for five months, earned Stew a Tony and was made into a movie of the same name by Spike Lee.

The image of Stew in the audience of the Passing Strange revival is undoubtedly, well, strange . This is the first time someone other than Stew has taken on the lead role of the Narrator—a character who functions as Stew’s older, wiser alter ego, keeping up a running musical commentary on the actions and thoughts of Youth, Stew’s younger, dumber alter ego. As the new Narrator, this D.C. actor has, essentially, taken over the lead in Stew’s autobiography; the real Stew is free to relax in the audience as his alter ego sings his life night after night.

But there’s a chance to see Stew himself sing next week at World Cafe Live, where many of the Point’s regular performers ended up. This time, though, he and his band, The Negro Problem, are at the top of the bill.

“[Passing Strange co-composer Heidi Rodewald and I] went into the theater with a conflict: We hated most musical theater,” Stew says on the phone from his New York home. “Especially rock musicals.”

Since he was a teen, Stew, now nearly 50, cut his teeth in bands, from punk to self-described “Afro-baroque.” He made a name for himself among rock cognoscenti over the years as a hyperliterate musical bard. Critics tripped over themselves to come up with a clever name for his edgy, stereotype-bending style (one writer deemed it “Blackarach”).

Then the theater came calling.

“The Public Theater in New York came to us and said, ‘Your songs sound like they could be something theatrical,’” Stew says. “And I did what everyone else in every rock band ever does: I lied and said we’re working on a musical.” Much to Stew’s surprise, the theater followed up, asking to see some pages. So rather than blow them off, he and Rodewald went back to L.A. to try their hands at writing a script, which took some getting used to.

“In high school, the drama club and the stoner-rock kids are mortal enemies, so I was a little suspicious,” Stew says. “But I started to find out that there were things about theater that were connected to rock ’n’ roll.” He started looking back—way back—to musical theater well before the dawn of Andrew Lloyd Webber.

“Guys like Molière would have traveling bands that would incorporate the town lore,” he says. “The band would arrive in town and go to a bar. They hear shit about whatever town they’re in, and then they incorporate that into the show that night. People love that. I was like, ‘Shit, I do that all the time on the road.’”

When he realized how well old theater traditions could relate to the rock ’n’ roll world that he knew, the idea of musical theater became much more palatable.

“I started reading about the old Globe Theatre and Shakespeare,” he says. “Guys are standing around drinking mead, men dressed as women … that sounds like a club I played last week in Jersey.”

Passing Strange is the largely but not entirely autobiographical tale of a middle-class kid who grows up in South Central Los Angeles feeling out of place because of his preference for French avant-garde cinema and PBS over stereotypical ghetto trappings. Spurning his mother, whom he feels is overly involved in his life, he ditches L.A. for Amsterdam, then Berlin, in search of “the real” among two compelling and very different bands of artists.

With whip-smart writing, a keen melodic sensibility and a score covering everything from punk to psychedelia to vaudeville, the show starred Stew as “Narrator,” often interacting with “Youth”—a younger version of Narrator—walking and singing through his own life.

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