When the mononymous musician and playwright Stew was 9 and living in Los Angeles, he first encountered the name James Baldwin.
Elementary school instructors — "these old-school, black lady teachers who wore wigs and were tall and serious," Stew said — referenced Baldwin as one of a number of black expatriates who sought to find racial harmony in Europe, rebuffing the blatant racism of America before the civil rights movement. That's when Stew first began to imagine a world beyond the one he lived, one where he too could be free of circumstances and expectations forced upon him.
But it wasn't until he read Baldwin's semiautobiographical novel "Go Tell It on the Mountain" — first at 15 and again in his late 50s — did Stew realize just how much his life was affected by the writer.
Stew, now 55 and a Tony-winner for writing the 2007 musical "Passing Strange," doesn't recall what he thought of "Go Tell It on the Mountain" when he was 15, but when he reread the book, "it was like spiritual copyright infringement. I could not believe how much I had digested that he became so much a part of my artistic DNA without me even realizing it."
Stew's spiritual connection with Baldwin is the basis of "Notes of a Native Song," a show coming to REDCAT in downtown L.A. Wednesday through Saturday featuring Stew's band, the Negro Problem. The music and theater event, created with his longtime collaborator, Heidi Rodewald, highlights the legacy of Baldwin and how the author and activist who died nearly 30 years ago paved the way for the black boy who heard the name James Baldwin in elementary school.
Stew and his team created the show for Harlem Stage, a New York event space where he had wanted to perform for years. When he approached the venue with an idea focused on highlighting the changing face of the neighborhood, planning was in process for a 14-month celebration (still going on) called "The Year of James Baldwin." He found that ironic considering a Hilton Als review of "Passing Strange" in the New Yorker suggested that readers imagine what Stew could do "if he were to reimagine the work of that other black expat in Europe who gets a nod or two in 'Passing Strange': the original 'strange' black American, James Baldwin."
"The signs were already and always there," Stew said. "I jumped at the chance."
But he suspected doing a show about the highly regarded Baldwin, particularly in his signature style, might cause some ire.
"Baldwin is like this tree with all these different fruits on it, and everyone grabs the fruit they want because he's so amazing, prolific and deep that everyone can find something in him," Stew said. Just on Friday, "I Am Not Your Negro," director Raoul Peck's documentary film on Baldwin, opened to wide acclaim.
Stew said he knew his approach was going to upset people.
"I wasn't making a Ken Burns documentary," he said. "I wanted to dirty [Baldwin] up a little bit because he was a messy rock 'n' roller."
And that's exactly the vibe of "Notes of a Native Song," Stew said, an ode to "the real Baldwin, not that very respectable, PBS great-moments-in-black-history-during-February Baldwin."
As Rodewald puts it, the show is in the spirit of Baldwin in that he believed "things aren't always completely black and white," she said. "I hope they walk away thinking that, of all things."
The show — a mash-up of songs, speech and visuals — traverses genres, including glam rock, jazz and rhythm and blues. All the while, Stew provides commentary about themes Baldwin is known for — race, love, pain and politics — and that are present in the book from which the show borrows its name. The collection of essays "Notes of a Native Son" are Baldwin's meditation on working through the pain of living in a world of white supremacy and daring to see the world anew. The Stew & Heidi show falls in line with what people have come to expect from the creative duo, said Mark Murphy, executive director of the REDCAT.
"Stew and Heidi have had a radical influence on the evolution of music-theater, songwriting and contemporary performance in general," he said. "It's exciting that they are applying their uniquely powerful theatrical vision to the remarkable life and work of James Baldwin."
"Notes of a Native Song" has been making its rounds worldwide, with gigs in Philadelphia, San Francisco and Abu Dhabi. And it doesn't seem to be angering people as Stew thought it might. On opening night in Harlem, novelist Toni Morrison sat front row.
"She was so full of love," Stew said. "She was so nurturing that night. She made me feel like I've done the right thing."
But to be clear, he's not trying to educate audiences.
"I'm trying to inspire. I want people to run to his books," he said, noting that "Giovanni's Room" is his favorite.
He intends the show's takeaway to be that "our heroes are human."
"We zap them of their power if we try to make them gods. We destroy them when we turn them into gods," he said. "Keep them human, close to us. Baldwin is your relative. Love him and accept the fact that he's human too."
"Notes of a Native Song"
Where: REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., L.A.
When: 8:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday
Information: (213) 237-2800, www.redcat.org