For One Rock Band, A Novel and Exciting 'Negro Problem'

Pop-rock band, the Negro Problem, confronts race with a blend of critique and humor. Mark "Stew" Stewart, the group's leader - and only black member - is now bringing the band's style to the theater with the musical Passing Strange. Stewart, along with band member Heidi Rodewald and actress Eisa Davis, talk to Farai Chideya about the play based on Stew's life.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

It takes a brave man to make a joke out of America's tangled racial history, but that's exactly what Mark "Stew" Stewart did when he formed the band called The Negro Problem.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: The other band members, including Stew's personal and professional partner Heidi Rodewald, are white. Now, Stew and Heidi have put together a, well, it's kind of like a musical and kind of like a rock show. "Passing Strange" is about religion, drugs, freedom and a black man who finds himself living with anarchists in Berlin.

(Soundbite of musical "Passing Strange")

Mr. MARK STEWART (Vocalist, The Negro Problem): (As character) I had wings to fly, soaring through the sky I must have been home.

CHIDEYA: I got to see "Passing Strange" on a recent visit to New York and caught up with Stew, Heidi and Eisa Davis, who plays the lead character's mother. Stew started us off by saying how the crowd gets into the show.

Mr. STEWART: The audience basically wants to be on stage at a rock show. In theater, they kind of want to be entertained, and so we're trying to, sort of, riding that roller coaster in the theme park and trying to navigate it.

CHIDEYA: Well, Eisa, let me ask you about your role.

Ms. EISA DAVIS (Actress): Sure.

CHIDEYA: Because, in some ways, your role is the least stereotype-breaking but also the most stereotype-breaking. You play Stew's mother and.

Mr. STEWART: Well, the narrator's mother.

CHIDEYA: Well, yes, I'm sorry. Well, I was going to ask you about that. To what degree, well, that brings - we'll ask more about that later. It's like - is this an autobiographical musical or semi-autobiographical musical?

Mr. STEWART: We call it autobiographical fiction.

CHIDEYA: See? There you go confusing people with that.

Ms. DAVIS: I love it.

CHIDEYA: But - anyway, you play the narrator's mother.

Ms. DAVIS: Right.

CHIDEYA: How would you describe the person that you play?

Ms. DAVIS: She wants to fit in so badly. She wants to make sure above all that her son is brought into this world, you know, without - with as little pain as possible. And so that means she uses all this tough love on him in order to try to help him. But then what it turns out, as we see him grow through the play, is that she, like so many mothers, is kind of the shadow artist, and she wants so much to be able to live the life that he's living, which is a free life of experimentation with his art and with love.

CHIDEYA: And she's just one player in this whole concept of dreaming. And Heidi, I want to bring you into this, too, because I know that you're both a personal and a musical collaborator with Stew. And how did you come to this project?

Ms. HEIDI RODEWALD (Member, The Negro Problem): Well, I, you know, I've been playing with Stew in the band. I joined his band, The Negro Problem, 10 years ago. So we've been doing this for so long that I guess I don't really separate it, like now, we're doing theater. I really - I feel like my role here is always to remind us who we are.

Mr. STEWART: I think that's true.

Ms. RODEWALD: You know, yeah.

CHIDEYA: Well, I - this is something I want to toss back to Heidi but then get all of you involved in. Well, who are you? I mean, how do you see yourselves fitting into this whole project?

Ms. RODEWALD: Well, I am the person I've always been. I'm this lucky white chick playing in a band. I'm a band chick, you know, and I really don't think of myself any different. It's funny I get to say a couple of words in this. I was laughing the other day saying I'm an actor, you know. But, I said, no, I'm this lucky, you know, I had…

CHIDEYA: Well, I want to go to Eisa. I know that, you know, this is my bad. I arrived late to the interview. I fully admit it. I know you got to go, so this is your - you can incorporate everything…

Ms. DAVIS: Right.

CHIDEYA: …you wanted to say in the whole interview into this one answer.

Ms. DAVIS: This one moment. Well, I feel like, you know, what you're asking Heidi and all of us is - it's such an interesting question because there's one person who get to see it as there are all these black actors on stage and then there are all these white musicians surrounding us, and it's like that just must mean that black people are living in a white world and we're always, you know, constrained by the man, you know what I mean?

But the thing is that, you know, that's one way to look at it, of course, if you look at things that way. But it's saying that we do come from these very specific cultural backgrounds and we use them and exploit them and collude with other people. So I think what's exciting about it is that you're seeing black actors who are playing white people, like I play a woman in an Antonioni movie, you know.

CHIDEYA: That was hilarious.

Ms. DAVIS: And, you know, what I mean, it's like these are the kinds of things that as artists, we never ever expected we were going to be able to do this on stage.

CHIDEYA: So Eisa, you know…

Ms. DAVIS: Later(ph).

CHIDEYA: This is…

Ms. DAVIS: I will see you later.

CHIDEYA: That was you soliloquy.

Ms. DAVIS: That was your last thought. So I'll listen in and try to figure out the rest.

CHIDEYA: Yup.

Ms. DIVIS: You know?

Mr. STEWART: See you.

CHIDEYA: So Stew, what about - what's your role?

Mr. STEWART: For me, I think as much as blackness is a huge part of this play obviously, but, you know, the sexual politics of this play are also very important, and it's not an accident that the only people that really challenged this lead character are gay men of color and women, you know?

Ms. RODEWALD: And I wanted to say, you know, just talking about the band about, you know, we all happened to be white, we are really truly a band. And if we were that calculated to go, you know, like this looks a little weird. We should make sure somebody, you know, we need some color in here…

Mr. STEWART: Yeah. That's funny about the theme park, you know? America - race is a theme park. Race is a psychological theme park in this country, you know?

CHIDEYA: And in your play, you make a big point of that. When the character is in Germany, he experiences his own ghetto fabulousness. Circa - what year would you say that was?

Mr. STEWART: I'm feeling like, you know, early to mid-80s…

CHIDEYA: Right.

Mr. STEWART: You know, this character, this youth, as we call him, this black kid going to Amsterdam and Berlin, he is a composite of both myself and about three of my friends I went to Europe with, three black friends who I went to Europe with. He's also - James Baldwin and Josephine Baker, you know, he's also a bit of Richard Wright, you know?

We all, to various degrees, used the concept of blackness as this sort of like exotic, you know, we all worked our exoticness to various degrees. Some of us to more embarrassing ends than others. It's kind of fun, you know, to be 45 and to be still reinventing yourself, you know. And that's what we're just trying to do, you know. We're having fun with it, you know?

CHIDEYA: Heidi?

Ms. RODEWALD: Yeah, exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: Ditto?

Ms. RODEWALD: Ditto. No, I'm following Stew around. We're going to do our thing. We're going to get ready to get in the van and drive across the country and, you know?

CHIDEYA: Well, pull into L.A. sometime.

Mr. STEWART: We will.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, Heidi and Stew, thank you so much.

Mr. STEWART: Thank you so much.

Ms. RODEWALD: Thank you for having us.

CHIDEYA: That was Stew and Heidi Rodewald, along with Eisa Davis, of the musical "Passing Strange." It's currently playing at New York's Public Theater.

(Soundbite of musical "Passing Strange")

Mr. STEWART: (As Character) I remember when I owned everything, the sun and he moon and the rain, and my domain stretched and (unintelligible) along the astroplain(ph).

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