Carole Shorenstein Hays once more triumphs in bringing intimate, alternative entertainment to the “Curran Under Construction” program. During renovation of the 1,600 seat theater, productions are performed and viewed by an audience of 100 or so on the stage of the theater, facing the faintly-lit, yawning house and its monster chandelier, creating a distinctive viewing experience
“Notes of a Native Song” is the eighth of the under-construction offerings, and it is a highly entertaining and worthwhile show. The title of the production draws on James Baldwin’s most influential work, a series of partly autobiographical essays, by simply adding the letter “g” to the end of his title. Since Baldwin’s own title cites his mentor, Richard Wright’s groundbreaking “Native Son”, this represents the third generation of connecting works through common naming. This is at once a paean to Baldwin and yet it is not without tweaks.
The driving force behind “Notes of a Native Song” is Stew, a 54 year old, black rock musician, whose greatest professional distinction is the rock musical “Passing Strange”, created in collaboration with not-black Heidi Rodewald. Opened at Berkeley Rep, the semi-autobiographical work reached Broadway, receiving eight Tony nominations.
The format of this work is a song cycle bound by poetry and other commentary, with text and lyrics by Stew. Its music, composed by Rodewald, is rock-pop with a little blues, and where appropriate, Middle Eastern influence, as in the song “Istanbul”. The music carries rhythmic and melodic punch, and the libretto is thought provoking and at times heart rending, but light hearted moments abound as well. It premiered at the Harlem Stage, and as Stew notes, this is the first time it has been performed in front of a non-Harlem audience, however one wishes to interpret that. He is comfortable that San Francisco is exactly the right non-Harlem place to expand its audience.
Some of the songs speak to the common black experience, noting sorrowfully that history has shown “browns become whites, but blacks remain black”. Others are Baldwin-specific, reflecting his constant struggle with adversaries tangible and abstract. The most pointed tracts deal with his rejection of Wright’s depiction of Bigger Thomas in “Native Son”, which Baldwin felt fed prejudices against blacks.
Stew makes no attempt to provide a cohesive biographical sketch of Baldwin. The audience must bring that knowledge to the performance or pursue it afterward. Rather, the artist provides a shotgun array of his own impressions of Baldwin, whom he affectionately refers to as JB or Jimmy.
Five performers deliver the music. In addition to Stew on guitar and Rodewald on bass, Art Terry supports on keyboards and Marty Beller is a living metronome on drums. He also has a star turn with an energetic solo. A big part of the distinctive sound comes from Mike McGinnis on woodwinds. Apart from playing (at least) five instruments, he creates bellowing, howling, and shimmering on saxes and flute that penetrate the skin.
Video is effective when used but underemployed. Some quotes are flashed; some book covers displayed. Amusing, yet effective is the editing of famous stills of performers to imply Baldwin’s influence. In a photo of Jimi Hendrix, the singer’s face is replaced by that of Baldwin’s. In a Beatles’ visitation with Maharishi Mahesh, Baldwin’s face replaces the guru. In all cases, Baldwin’s face is in motion within the still shot.
Like others in this series, this production is a gift to the theater-going community from Ms Shorenstein Hays. With 30 staff required to support each performance; with performers brought to San Francisco from afar; with open wine bar and finger foods at opening night; and with only several stagings of each work before a small audience, there is clearly no expectation that this series will make money.
“Notes of a Native Song” is at the Curran Theater, 445 Geary St, San Francisco through December 5.