Stew

‘Notes of a Native Song’ review: beguiled by Baldwin

In admiring yet refusing to canonize James Baldwin, Stew and The Negro Problem's music theater work reveals the writer's legacy of resistance to simple definition

“This ain’t your mama’s Baldwin country,” Stew glowered at the audience at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall at the outset of his September 2017 Time Based Arts Festival performance. Actually, even before the performance technically started, he’d warned us that “this is not a safe space,” and asked those who might be easily offended by art to move close to the aisles so they could flee if necessary.

With a challenge like that, it was a little disappointing to encounter nothing so scary in the singer-songwriter’s James Baldwin-inspired Notes of a Native Song. No doubt the line, and Stew’s (probably tongue in cheek) concern, stemmed from the show’s debut last year in Baldwin’s old home territory of Harlem, in front of people who knew the great mid-20th century American writer.

Stew and The Negro Problem performed ‘Notes of a Native Song’ at TBA ’17.

When his teenage daughter encountered Baldwin’s landmark semi-autobiographical novel Go Tell It on the Mountain in school, Stew re-read it for the first time since he was also a young adolescent — and suddenly realized how deeply Baldwin’s life had affected his own creative path since then. When a coincident opportunity arose to produce a show at a Harlem theater space as part of a Baldwin celebration, Stew and his longtime creative (and one-time personal) partner Heidi Rodewald created Notes on a Native Song, punning on the title of Baldwin’s celebrated essay collection Notes of a Native Son.

As he was careful to promise well in advance, the performance turned out to be more about Stew than Baldwin, more current events than history. And there’s never anything wrong with that, but actually, I left the show wanting to know more about Stew’s own Baldwin inspiration, as well as more about Baldwin himself.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Fire, TBA

Natural disasters, TBA springs to life, new theater season kicks into gear, Brett Campbell's musical picks, links

Bam. Just like that, it’s September. And just like that, we’re living in a disaster area. Across the metropolitan area the skies are thick with smoke, and ash is drifting like some late-summer demon snow. Fire has engulfed the Columbia Gorge, swept across Warm Springs and southern Oregon (the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland has canceled several outdoor performances), crept to the urban edges. Much of the rest of the West, from Houston to L.A., has been smacked as hard or harder.

James Lavadour, “This Good Land,” suite of two four-color lithographs. Paper size each: 30 x 39.5″; total image size: 60 x 39.5″. Edition of 20. Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts

We tend to think of art as something that engages our minds and our emotions, but here in the West we live in constant proximity to the physical, too, and somehow our art needs to engage that as well. I’m thinking of painters like James Lavadour, whose work seems hewn from the geology of the dry inland, and Michael Brophy’s scenes of human incursions into the wild, and the unromanticized gritty vistas of Sally Cleveland and Roll Hardy, and the elemental art of Sara Siestreem and Lillian Pitt and the late Betty Feves and Morris Graves, and so many others. Their refusal to abandon the idea of the physical is not caution but a recognition that we live in Place, and can’t live outside of it. Call them regionalists if you want. We are all regional, all physical, and our best artists show us how the physical, the intellectual, and the emotional are interwoven. Floods mean something. Fire means something. Wasted waters mean something. We can see it, through the smoke and mirrors of denial. Our storytellers can’t live simply inside their heads. Engage. Engage with the world. Including the physical world that is part of us, and we of it.

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Meanwhile, the cultural season’s steaming down the track like a freight train that’s behind schedule and racing to catch up. Lots and lots going on this week, so let’s just do a quick stop, look, and listen.

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