Tony and Obie Award-winning duo Stew and Heidi’s creative blueprint for Notes of a Native Song — which comes to OZ Arts Nashville for two performances Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 — was just like the one they used almost ten years earlier for their barrier-breaking Broadway hit Passing Strange.
It’s a symbiotic partnership that has allowed them to keep generating their own unique brand of musical theatre. Stew and Heidi compose the music together; and Stew provides the book and lyrics.
For this new work, Stew was inspired by the work of the playwright, novelist and essayist James Baldwin, who’s exerted a huge influence the musician and playwright over the years. The show refers to Baldwin’s seminal 1955 essay collection, Notes of a Native Son — which is itself a reference to Richard Wright’s legendary novel of black struggle, Native Son.
This theatrical song cycle explores the famed writer’s lasting relevance and influence through a rapturous blend of rock, blues and spoken word. Stew’s musical homage to the late writer emphasizes a modern take on Baldwin’s compelling essays.
“You cannot describe anything without betraying your point of view, your aspirations, your fears, your hopes. Everything,” notes Baldwin in Notes of a Native Son.
The mononymous (referred to by only one name) Stew credits Baldwin as a vital influence on his life as a Black American artist. First introduced to Baldwin’s writing in elementary school, Stew didn’t realize how much the author’s words had influenced his own path until he read Baldwin’s semiautobiographical novel “Go Tell It on the Mountain” — first at 15 and again in his late 50s.
Baldwin, an African American expatriate who sought racial equity in Europe in the face of blatant American racism before the civil rights movement, is renowned for his commentary on the Black experience in America. Stew and Heidi examine the enduring relevance of Baldwin’s words and life through the lens of today’s social and political climate.
The thought-provoking influence of the Black expatriate plays an important role in Stew’s own semiautobiographical work, the Tony and Obie Award-winning Broadway musical Passing Strange, which was filmed by director Spike Lee in 2008.
But Baldwin’s complex legacy is more directly explored in the song cycle Notes of a Native Song. Reuniting with frequent collaborator Heidi Rodewald, Stew delves deeper into the enduring relevance of Baldwin’s words and life through the lens of today’s social and political climate.
As Baldwin states in the same essays he wrote almost six decades ago, art is about our experiences.
“One writes out of one thing only — one’s own experience,” Baldwin states. “Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art.”
Stew and Heidi’s Notes of a Native Song will be performed at OZ Arts Nashville on January 31 and February 1 at 8:00 p.m. Tickets are $25-30 and are available now at OZArtsNashville.org or 615-350-7200.