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Performance Sun Oct 31 2010

Stew and the Negro Problem

It is often said that music is the universal language; for Mark "Stew" Stewart, this most certainly rings true. Here, the Tony Award-winning artist and front man for the band Stew and the Negro Problem, discusses the "problem" when people, African-Americans particularly, are deemed a monolith when it comes to music.

web_Stew_1.jpg

Stew and the Negro Problem with Heidi Rodewald. Photograph:Jeff Fasano

You won a Tony Award in 2008 for Passing Strange, a story that deals with the freedom of musical and artistic expression. Was the concept a result of your experience growing up in Los Angeles? Is Los Angeles not as culturally diverse as it might seem?

Exactly. Maybe it was just my experience, especially as a black artist, but I kind of felt during my young life that people were always surprised when a big brother played lead guitar and wrote songs. It was like, "Oh you're in a band--you must be the bass player." And I'd always think, "No, and now there's one less stereotype for you to carry around!"

So you had to deal with a lot of those stereotypes, then.

I was literally in an all-black rock band and when we would show up to gigs, people would ask, "Do you play funk? Jazz? Blues?" They'd just completely stereotype us to our face. Now, things have loosened up, and I feel like Passing Strange is for that generation that has loosened up.

And that would then be "the negro problem?"

Yes, exactly! It's that thing of always having to explain justify your existence; I mean, we [black people] invented a lot of this music.

Culturally and musically, for black artists, how did things get to this point--or put in this "box," so to speak?

I think the problem is that black people's tastes are as varied as any other people in the world; the thing is, we are marketed in a particular, narrow kind of way. The people who made me the artist I am were the black people I grew up around who liked everything from jazz to rock. I never knew any of these close-minded black people that I was told existed. I grew up in a very culturally varied black community that had its ears open. Now though, slowly, people are starting to realize black people are not a monolith.

Especially in this day and age.

Yes. You would think this would be known already based on the fact that we were innovators--we had guys like Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry. We were already at the beginning of these movements, but suddenly we were told they weren't ours and that we weren't allowed to do them.

You've said the words "rock musical" are two most terrifying words in the English language--why?

Those two words together scare me the most because I feel that in these [so-called] "rock musicals," people are doing simulations of actual rock music. To me, it's not enough to put an electric guitar in your score and then call it rock--rock is an attitude. It's made by bands. It's a communal thing. Basically, it's electrified folk music.

And that's what Passing Strange was all about.

Well, I think Passing Strange is a genuine rock musical because we are actually a band. It's not something created by a composer in some high-rise, wearing a turtleneck and playing piano. We made the same music we would've made for one of our records whether we had a Broadway show or not. And we didn't have any producers manipulating us--we were doing what we wanted and to me, that's what rock and roll is. That's why when I hear "rock musical," it's like there was some guy who decided, "Bring in an electric guitar! Pick up the pace! Turn up the drum!" It's a lot more to it than that.

You have said you were never interested in theater before--what changed your mind?

What changed my mind was getting commissioned [by the Public Theater in New York]. We were playing Joe's Pub, and some folks poked their heads in and told us they wanted to commission us to do a musical.

I can see how that would change your way of thinking.

Yes, and the agreement was simple: We told them, "We'll do this if we can put any music we want on the stage--we cannot have you telling us how you want it to be. If you agree to that, we'll make this musical." And that's why if you really listen to Passing Strange, it doesn't sound like anything on Broadway.

So you found a way to stay true to yourself while still bringing a theatrical aspect to it.

Absolutely. To me, all musical performers really are dramatic. They are the best actors because they are playing themselves.

I guess this is what Beyonce means when she claims to create her "Sasha Fierce" character on stage.

Oh yes. She's a great example of that. For us though, it wasn't really that big a stretch. I think that's also why we work so well with actors because musicians are naturally dramatic, and I think all actors will tell you they secretly want to be in a rock band.

Will your performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art still combine the rock musical/theatrical aspect? Will there be any actors?

There will be just the band--a straight up musical, five-piece band. There will be some songs Passing Strange but no actors, though.

What message would you like to see the audience take away from the performance?

I honestly love the fact that music is this profound thing that really allows people their own interpretations. What people will see is something that was created in the moment just for them--we do not play the same set twice--ever. Chicago has so much meaning to us as musicians, and a venue like the MCA in a city like Chicago that has serious musical history that resonates with every single band member, is what's making us especially psyched to bring our show there.

Chicago indeed has a rich musical culture.

Yes it does. And for a musician like me in particular, the whole history of what Chicago means specifically in terms of African-Americans in music and just what Chicago has given the world, period, is huge.

Well, we look forward to Stew and the Negro Problem hitting the Windy City.

We are excited to be there. We definitely want to make both shows special.

See Stew and the Negro Problem at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago, on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 12-13; both shows are at 7:30pm. General tickets are $28 and $22 for members; purchase tickets online or call the MCA box office at 312-397-4010 for further information.

 
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