June 4, 2015

The singer and songwriter Stew pays homage to the great African-American writer and activist James Baldwin in “Notes of a Native Song,” a song cycle adorned with some casual commentary and video — or, as Stew puts it in a program note, “just a bunch of songs with banter in between.” The show, part of Harlem Stage’s season celebrating the 90th anniversary of Baldwin’s birth, does indeed have the loose, off-the-cuff feeling of an improvised concert. Stew confided that it was still being created in the days before Wednesday’s opening, for a brief run through Sunday — and that his outfit, a ceremonial-looking black cap and gown, was purchased only hours before, on the approval of his young daughter. The concept, according to Stew, who wrote the lyrics and text and collaborated with Heidi Rodewald on the music, is to present Baldwin “as a blues singer,” although the music is primarily rock-driven, as was the case with their “Passing Strange,” which opened at the Public Theater and subsequently moved to Broadway. Stew also jokes that he might be accused of “spiritual copyright infringement” in creating that show, because he has long been inspired by Baldwin’s own journey. As with Baldwin, who wrote most of his work during a long exile from America spent mostly in France, Stew’s artistic development took place partly in Europe and was dramatized in “Passing Strange.”