Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Notes of a Native Song
It is not surprising that the musician and performance artist Stew would be enamored of, and heavily influenced by, James Baldwin. Both men have similar biographies: childhoods spent in historically black enclaves (Harlem for Baldwin, south-central Los Angeles for Stew); formative years spent in Europe (France for Baldwin, Germany for Stew); art that comments on the African-American experience both inside the United States and abroad. Notes of a Native Song, Stew's satisfying new song cycle, is as much a veneration of Baldwin as an appraisal of his life and work.
It is difficult to describe exactly what kind of work Notes of a Native Songnow being presented in a co-production of the Wilma Theater and FringeArtsactually is. Stew tells us from the beginning that it isn't musical theater, and he's right; the dozen or so songs loosely hang together, eschewing narrative in a way that could be unconventional even in the context of a song cycle. Some songs are inspired by specific works from Baldwin's corpus, and these are often the most expressive and memorable. In particular, Stew's take on Baldwin's legendary short story "Sonny's Blues" is a haunting assessment of both the life of the artist and the life of the audience, pierced by a repeated, almost tortured refrain: "I wanted to describe the place that the listening took me." As he sings this line over and over again, it becomes achingly clear that this can never be fully achieved.
Elsewhere, Stew comments that "this show is about a timeand about a personwhen ideas mattered." This comes through strongly in a song that chronicles the fraught relationship between Baldwin and Richard Wright, who championed Baldwin's art until the younger artist skewered the master for his portrayal of black life as a tragic enterprise. "Love keeps black people alive," Stew sings, perhaps echoing Baldwin's famous statement that "love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within."
Not all of the 90-minute work is entirely successful. A song that aims to comment on the death of Trayvon Martin comes off as clever rather than profound. And although Stew addresses Baldwin's sexuality, which often put him at odds with the Civil Rights and Black Power movements"Black revolution was a straight man's game," he singsthis topic could be given more prominence. Perhaps most surprisingly, Stew seems obsessed with a mixed review that a previous production of this work received in The New York Times, mentioning it at several intervals throughout the evening. That just comes off as bitter.
Stew wrote the music with his longtime collaborator Heidi Rodewald, who accompanies him onstage. Although Rodewald is not a central focus of the evening as a performershe plays the bass upstage left and only occasionally interjectsshe remains a magnetic presence onstage. Stew and Rodewald are ably supported by a superb onstage band, including the virtuosic percussionist Marty Beller and the dynamic pianist Damian Lemar Hudson. However, it is Mike McGinnis on woodwinds who threatens to steal the show, particularly with a remarkable cifte solo in a number that evokes Baldwin's time in Istanbul.
We all approach art for different reasons. Stew sings that he "was looking for a hero who would cure all of my insecuritiesand that wasn't Jimmy's job at all." Instead, Stew's relationship with Baldwin the artist has led to a greater understanding of his own art. That should be something all artists strive for.
Notes of a Native Song continues through Sunday, September 11, 2016, at the Wilma Theater (265 S. Broad Street in Philadelphia). Tickets ($35; $15 for students and industry personnel) can be purchased online at www.wilmatheater.org or by calling 215-546-7824.