The Negro Problem
September 9th, 2017
Portland Institute of Contemporary Art, TBA:17
By Eben Hoffer
As The Negro Problem began, Stew walked out to the every edge of the stage, beyond the lights, slammed a chair down, and straddled it from behind. In so many words, he said, “If you are the kind of person who gets offended by art, please move yourself to an aisle seat so you can leave without disturbing anybody else”. He waited for people to move, and said he was doing as much. It was a daring, even aggressive, way to start an evening.
Earlier that morning, Stew and a group of young African-American artists attending a talk on The Negro Problem had gotten into a heated verbal exchange, over the politics of Stew’s discourse on Blackness within the dominantly-white Portland audience. Was the disclaimer directed at those artists? Or at the prototypical white concertgoer who can’t abide to address race directly? I don’t know. Regardless, the stage was highly charged before the music began.
As bassist/singer/songwriter Heidi Rodewald said early in the piece, “this is not a play”. The stage contained only a club-sized band setup, with occasional projections on the rear wall. Stew and Heidi, on guitar and bass, were joined only by a drummer who in Stew’s words “didn’t even know he was doing this gig”. The stripped-down, raw energy drove forward into a set of lyrically incisive songs, intercut with explanatory or digressive monologues, and occasional rhyming poetry spoken into a pitch-shifted microphone. Stew called up a panoply of voices, some seemingly his own and some not, addressing the history and legacy of James Baldwin.
Some of the voices took issue with Baldwin for not knowing his community (“how’d you know us if you don’t live here”), or jazzily aestheticizing the Black experience into meaninglessness (“blue Jimmy made a butler out of his rage”). Later, Stew lifts up Baldwin’s poetic touch by taking on his voice in criticism of Richard Wright’s seminal Native Son: “let black boys be human— could you do that?”. In one astonishing song, Stew takes note of the Black radical movement’s rejection of Baldwin for his “counterrevolutionary” gayness. He continued on to sing of the pressure put on Baldwin by his community: to serve the community as an artist, to be the “perfect Black hero”. “White people don’t hassle John Updike about how an artist serves the community,” Stew said, “…maybe his books would be more interesting if they did.”
Occasionally in the set, the songs took aim at recent political events. The band addressed the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the shooting of Trayvon Martin, and of course the orange specter of President Trump. In the Martin song, Stew sang the troubling words: “Brown and black met one night / black stayed black / ‘cuz brown turned white”. Listening, I wondered, what do those words mean in this space? Later, as Stew and Heidi harmonized “Power is so powerful / it can afford to pay people to speak truth to it”, I can only assume the rest of the well-heeled, intellectually curious audience felt as implicated by that statement as I did. Finally, at the end, Stew and Heidi thanked the audience for being “thrust into [their] maelstrom”: the stripped-down version of the show had been an experiment, a chance to work things out onstage. They had thought they could do so with the Portland audience, and felt glad to have guessed correctly.
The Negro Problem was an evening of powerful art and powerful contradiction. From the first moment, when a fundraising speech seemed to equate displacement of the Black community from North Williams street to the precocity of PICA’s financial situation, to Stew’s final thank-you to the open hearted theatergoers of Portland, there was nowhere to hide from the beautiful, horrible, overwhelming crisis of race in America.