The short and stocky black performer perked up in conversation at a Brooklyn bar last month. “San Diego? Heidi and I were just talking about San Diego the other day, remembering how important it was for us.…” The speaker was Mark “Stew” Stewart, winner of the 2008 Tony Award for Best Book (i.e., best spoken, non-sung dialogue, and storyline written for a musical play on Broadway) as author of Passing Strange (which garnered seven Tony nominations overall). Documented on celluloid by Spike Lee, the subsequent film of Passing Strange had its television debut on PBS in January. (Coronado’s Christian Gibbs is the stage guitarist, an actress running her hands through his curly hair as a plot device.)
Developed over a period of years, the acclaimed rock/pop/gospel/avant-cabaret production follows the odyssey of a young middle-class African-American musician from Southern California who flees to the boho scenes of Amsterdam and Berlin, finding himself in the process.
Passing Strange is the mostly autobiographical tale of Stew, the late-fortysomething singer-guitarist and prodigiously gifted songwriter of the Negro Problem, his Los Angeles band formed in the early ’90s. Fronting TNP and solo, Stew was a frequent visitor to SD stages until he moved from L.A. last decade to pursue development of Passing Strange with bassist-singer Heidi Rodewald, longtime creative partner. Stew befriended many SD musicians — Bart Mendoza, Gregory Page — and built a decent local following, also earning raves from U-T critic George Varga, who listed the Negro Problem’s album Post Minstrel Syndrome as tops for 1997. And Stew found a special venue in Java Joe’s, the coffeehouse founded in Poway by Joe Flammini in 1992, currently in Hillcrest but most notably in Ocean Beach from 1993 to 2002.
“Java Joe’s really had Joe’s identity — other clubs aren’t like that. He called the shots, allowed all kinds of things. We developed stuff down there that we never would’ve in L.A.,” elaborated Stew, unwinding after a performance of his new song-cycle Making It, which played six nights at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse. “The way we could stretch out, try things onstage…it really helped create the approach in Passing Strange, and now.” That includes insightful explication in setting up his songs, literate gems carried by wide-open melodic rock (think Beatles, Love/Arthur Lee) with occasional seamless dips into soul — or klezmer, etc.
After Making It, Stew noted plans to get back to being a band: making records and touring, including a likely return to SD in October.