LIKE TWO SHIPS PASSING Stew and the Negro Problem

Heidi Rodewald and Stew
talk about their award-winning Broadway musical, their extremely personal new
album
Making It, and their upcoming
return to the theatre.

 

BY DENISE SULLIVAN

 

Heidi Rodewald and Stew, the backbone of self-described
Afro-pop, “Blackarach” band, the Negro Problem had it all:  Love, creative partnership and attention from
a prestigious arts foundation for a stage musical that was eventually bound for
glory – Broadway, Obie and Tony awards – and even a Joint by Spike Lee.
Somewhere in that order of things, Stew and Heidi’s love hit the rocks, but the
show must go on and became Passing
Strange
(it ran for 165 performances on Broadway before closing in July
‘08).

 

And then it got a little stranger:  “The end of the play was when I could really
hear the door slam,” says Stew, his voice reduced to a hush.  “The art had to end before I realized it was
over.

 

For Stew, the nights on Broadway with bassist, vocalist and
creative collaborator Heidi were rehearsals for the retirement of their
romance. “It’s a fact that we broke up during Passing Strange and we had to be in a play for two years together
which is pretty intense,” he says, matter-of-factly. “Making It is largely about that experience…Not every song, but most
of it.”

 

“Yea, it was a little bit of a drag,” is Heidi’s response to
opening up the door on her and Stew’s life together.  “I mean, we didn’t decide to do the show, Stew decided to do the show, but I love that
about Stew, that he can put into words the way I feel,” she says, though in the
case of Making It (just released on
Stew and Heidi’s TNP label), he took that process one step further.

 

Explains Stew, “I showed her my part to ‘Leave Believe’ and
asked her, ‘Do you think you could maybe write lyrics that are your version of
that?’  And Heidi’s response was, ‘That’s
exactly how I felt.’ Consequently they both sing the song’s sole lines – “It
took a little while for me to see, you stopped believing in me/I wasn’t left
with much to do, so I stopped believing in you” – to stunning effect.

 

“Stew had starting saying that writing a show about us
breaking up was like his therapy and I told him that therapy only works if you
tell the truth,” says Heidi, who remains unsettled by airing the confines of
her heart for art’s sake. And yet, when Stew turned Heidi’s jabs and other
phrases into songs, he sweetened the deal a bit by arranging to open up some
space in his word-jammed verses for her to sing the truth from her own lips.  Somehow, Heidi bought the idea and wound up
on board with the project, and it’s her add that allows Making It to claim space on the continuum of great break-up albums,
from Marvin Gaye’s Here My Dear and
Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out
the Lights
to Beck’s Sea Change.  Spitting her embittered lines (like “I’m
tired of waiting around, for nothing to change” from the sweetly melodious
“Love is a Cult”), there’s a power in the jarring rawness and fly-on-the-wall
intimacy. Stew’s frankness is just as unnerving, even for someone whose
stock-in-trade is walking the razor’s edge between life and art. But lest you
think Making It is his diary of a mad
artist, or exegesis on fame a la Kanye or Gaga, it’s not: Rodewald’s crystal voice simply doesn’t allow for Stew
to wallow in too many teardrops. 

 

Opening with a song about “Pretend,” and “stupid little
songs that’ll make you break down and cry,” Stew sets the stage: “Plays are
real if you pretend/you are too, until the end/trapped in a homegrown
masquerade, costume’s wrong but so well made, curtain fell but who got played…”

 

“I had my fun,” admits Stew, about the immediate
post-break-up freedom phase, “but the bottom line was, when the play closed, we
didn’t know if we were going to continue together.”

 

Both parties were pained, as evidenced by the album’s
set-piece, “Curse,” which sways as heavy as a funeral dirge as it proclaims,
“You don’t need a new girlfriend, what you need is a nurse”.  But there’s more to Making It than the depth and drama of coming undone:  The double sword of trying to get over finds Stew rocking a litany of contentious real
life subjects: “Pretend” feeds back into “Black Men Ski,” Stew’s
impressionistic musings on the New Black and the post-racial thing: “I have
poems about sunsets, flowers, and the rain, I’ve read them to policemen, but it
was all in vain…” Other matters on Stew’s desktop are death and injustice,
empire and war, subjects that get a good going over in “Suzy Wong” (featuring
California-bred rhymes like “BART rider” with “brush fire”) and the exploding
“Pastry Shop,” concerning “rage against coffee machines” among other crimes,
all enveloped in strains of pain and desire (which when you think of it, isn’t
so unlike breaking-up after all). 

 

Of course, all the songs are threaded with the kind of
wordplay that’s contributed to Stew becoming admired abroad, laurelled and
wreathed on the Great White Way, and assigned by The New York Times to report from his trip to Kenya last
summer.  And yet, he’s still the one
Negro who can’t get arrested in LA…

 

As the narrator of Passing
Strange
, Stew told the story of his character The Youth, who lives like a
refugee in South Los Angeles till he gets wind of the idea that a black artist
can live more free in Europe  (though
when he gets there, he gets hipped to other realities).

 

 

 

As a theater piece Passing
Strange
is iconoclastic; an unlikely hit that contributed to rock’s new run
on Broadway; the play is a timeless, coming of age drama with a killer score,
largely informed by Stew and Heidi’s close to the ground relationship with LA
rock ‘n’ roll.  Both were fixtures on the
rock scene there, first as teens (Stew was conversant in Bowie and the Beatles
and caught hell in his old neighborhood for it, while Heidi was a bassist from
‘burbs who made her initial mark with the Paisley Underground-styled Wednesday
Week).  As Mark Stewart (Stew changed his
name officially when confusion reigned between him and the other Mark Stewart,
of The Pop Group/On U Sound-fame), he motored around the city, taking in all
forms of live rock ‘n’ soul and connecting up with like-minded musicians who
understood the Technicolor nature of rock.  He formed the Negro Problem in the early ‘90s
and debuted with Post Minstrel Syndrome in ’97.  When Heidi joined the group, he
found the perfect collaborator for his whimsy as a songwriter.  

 

Difficulties with their handle notwithstanding, TNP, as they
are sometimes called, continued to release albums and gig, finding an audience
among industry insiders, fellow musicians and the clubby KCRW set (Adam Duritz
of Counting Crows is a friend and fan), though they remained only a moderate
draw at the black box rock clubs.  And so
it was at mid-life, the pair set out for New York and something better – a
second act, perhaps – where they might find a home for their sophisticated
sounds and a space to work on their musical. The rare opportunity to workshop
twice what became Passing Strange, once
in 2004 and again in 2005 at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute, is what
brought them into the orbit that landed them in theaters – Berkeley Rep, New
York’s Public and eventually Broadway’s Belasco, where Spike Lee filmed the
final night of Passing Strange and
cut it into a film. By then the circumstances that provoked the themes of Making It were heating up like charcoal
on a broiler.  An initial performance of
the songs as a stage piece at St. Anne’s Warehouse became the springboard
toward completing Making It as an
album.

 

And while it’s a little frustrating for Stew and Heidi to
have to explain to their newly converted theater fans that it isn’t really “going
back” to rock since they never really left it, fans of Passing Strange as well as the Negro Problem may be interested to
know that following the release of Making
It
, Stew and Heidi are scheduled to return to the theater. Their new
musical, The Total Bent, begins a
three-week preview run at New York’s Public Lab next month.  Concerning the journey of a gospel turned
rock singer occupying “the complicated space from the sacred to the profane,”
it’s set in a period of historic political and social unrest, “just south of
the Twilight Zone.”

 

It remains to be seen what awaits around the bend for Stew,
Heidi and the Negro Problem, though from rock ‘n’ roll to theater, to rock ‘n’ roll
and theater again, for now their collaboration is secure; they’re making it
work.

 

 “I don’t consider
myself a confessional songwriter by any means, but Heidi’s the person I thought
I was going to grow old with,” says Stew. “In some ways she still is because
we’re in this band. I’m hoping we are going to grow old together – onstage.”

 

Denise Sullivan is the author of Keep on Pushing:  Black Power Music From Blues to Hip Hop.

 

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