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Mark “Stew” Stewart

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It was February 2010, and the short and stocky black performer perked up in conversation at a Brooklyn bar.


“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 2010. 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.

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4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
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