Stew and Spike Lee

A heady mixture of stage musical and rock show, Passing Strange chronicles the efforts of a young, middle-class black man whom the credits identify simply as Youth (Daniel Breaker) to break away from his straitlaced upbringing and discover what he calls “the Real.” Scraping by as a struggling songwriter in Amsterdam and Berlin, he falls in with a succession of bohemians and art-world hangers-on, trying to reconcile the romantic vision of African-American expatriates like James Baldwin and Josephine Baker with the reality of being the sole black face in an all-white world full of self-styled revolutionaries who still obediently go home for Christmas.

Although it doesn’t precisely mimic the events of the play, capably captured on film by Spike Lee (and now available via Sundance on Demand), Mark Stewart’s life is close enough to his protagonist’s to provide a solid sense of his origins, artistic and otherwise. As Stew, the leader of a like-titled band as well as the chamber-pop outfit The Negro Problem, he has been releasing records for more than a decade, woozy narratives informed by XTC and Harry Nilsson. But it wasn’t until he and his longtime musical partner (and former girlfriend) Heidi Rodewald were invited to develop a stage musical for New York’s Public Theater that he finally had anything like the popular success to match his years of critical acclaim.

Fiercely intelligent and ferociously funny, Passing Strange mingles meditations on race, class, and the artistic temperament with a set of irrepressibly kick-ass rock songs. The singer and his director took a break from a day of interviews at a Dean & Deluca in midtown Manhattan, with Lee pausing occasionally to return the enthusiastic thumbs-up of passers-by.

The A.V. Club: Stew, the title of Passing Strange refers in part to the practice of light-skinned African-Americans passing for white, and a lot of the language in the play is drawn from the pre-civil-rights era, as when Youth refers to the congregation of his church as a “middle-class coon show.” You’ve drawn on that language frequently in your songs, going back as far as The Negro Problem’s first album, Post Minstrel Syndrome. What interests you in the vocabulary of those times?

Stew: As a culture, black culture, we have this history that we’re constantly grappling with, of people representing us and people misrepresenting us. But the real reason I use the language often is because I’m also pointing to how we have misrepresented ourselves, and how we have bought into some of that misrepresentation. I did a seminar a long time ago with this black nationalist named Maulana Karenga. He invented Kwanzaa. The reason why I did it wasn’t because I was a black nationalist, but I wanted to learn from what this cat had to say, because he had some interesting thoughts. He told me something I’ll never forget. He said, “Most cultures represent themselves based on the best of what they have to offer…”

Spike Lee: Ooh, uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh!

S: And he said, “Black American folks often, because of their mythology, because of the history, tend to represent themselves from the worst.” Spike and I have this obsession with black culture being looked at as a monolith. Spike can speak as well as I can on the fact that we get told that all we are is gang-bangers, and that’s how we realize our greatest potential, as those kind of people, right? Other cultures don’t do that. They represent themselves with their best.

SL: [Italian accent.] Leonardo da Vinci.

S: Exactly, exactly, exactly. And they tend to take their art seriously, too. So I’m just saying, when I use that language, I’m just as interested—I’m even more interested—in how black folks misrepresent themselves, and how they are sometimes tommin’ and coonin’ in situations where they don’t need to be. We don’t need to do that anymore. We really don’t. But we’re still doing it.

SL: You don’t have to put on a blackface anymore either, to be part of the coon show. 

S: And, hey, Bamboozled. He’s been there already. He’s been there.

AVC: Bamboozled takes a more confrontational approach than Passing Strange

S: But the same spirit. He’s interested in the subject. 

AVC: Spike, so much of the play is about the Youth trying to find himself as an artist coming out of a culture that is only interested in financial success and stability. But you were raised in an artistic environment; your father, Bill Lee, was a well-known jazz musician. Where did you find yourself in this play? How did it speak to you?

S: It spoke to me in great volumes. Stew and I, I’m a little older than him, but we’re the same era. We’re two young black boys, growing up on each side of the coast, trying to find out who we are and where we fit in this world, and we’ve been very fortunate that we turned out to be the people we turned out to be, as artists and commenting on the world.

AVC: One of the things that the play, and the movie, deals with is that the Youth is, to put it crudely, forced to choose between being an artist and being black. There’s no way to be bohemian in the middle-class neighborhood where he grows up, but in the largely white environments he escapes to, he’s equally an outsider. When white teenagers rebel, there’s a script laid out for them, but the Youth doesn’t have that option. 

S: What I’ve said before about Passing Strange is that black teen angst isn’t really documented enough. We’ve got a lot of white teen angst—been doing it since the James Dean movies.

SL: Rebel Without A Cause.

S: Exactly, right? But it’s like black teenagers, if I may say, we’re not just rebelling against what our parents are dealing with. We’re rebelling against our very place in society. See, James Dean was white. You know what I mean? He might have not liked Thurston Howell, or his dad, whoever, but James Dean was still white. When he wanted to leave home, he could go get a job. Right? A black teenager who wants to be punk-rock, he’s in a double bind. Because he’s pissed off his family, but now I’m black and punk-rock? You know what I mean? Where you gonna go? So it’s like this double bind. 

Black teenagers have it a little bit rougher. I’m sorry to say, but they just do. I’m hoping there’s a world at some point where it’ll be a little bit easier, but right now… Imagine how crazy people must have thought [Spike] was when he said, “I’m going to be a filmmaker.” If he’d said, “I want to be a baller,” they would have been like, “Well, at least we know 8 million ballers.” They must have said, “What are you talking about, man?” And they looked at me the same crazy way. Being a musician was like saying you wanted to be a bum, you want to be a drug addict, you want to die like Jimi Hendrix. Because that’s what musicians do, don’t they? Or, “Ooh, you’re a jazz musician? That means you want to be on heroin.” You know what I mean?

AVC: Spike, did you ever think you were going to follow your father into music instead of film? 

SL: Never. That still did not negate my love for music and my respect for musicians. It’s because of my father, his musicality, that I’m able to use that love of music in my films. 

AVC: The score plays a very active role in your films, especially when you’re working with Terence Blanchard. It’s not just mood setting or wallpaper. 

SL: Right. 

S: Oh, big time. I remember seeing his movies and thinking, “Man, the music is so loud.” Which I loved. Because I’m like, “Wow, he’s not trying to fool you.” Some guys try to lay it down in the mix, like they can fool you into feeling a certain way about the scene. His movies, it’s more like somebody put a record on. That to me adds to the whole sensual experience, visual, sonic. It’s like, “This shit is all happening at the same time,” not like, “I’m trying to use this music to fool you.” “I’m letting you know that this music is happening right now, in this scene,” you know? That’s why we knew that the film would be good, because he has this musical sensibility. He’s put his stamp on film. He changed the way music and film relate. That’s a fact. You can see it everywhere. You see it in videos, all this stuff. I don’t mean just like, Do the Right Thing, “Oh, you know, Public Enemy, hip-hop, da da da,” but jazz, man. Nobody really was dealing with jazz.

SL: Public Enemy, I used them in the movie a lot. That’s the only rap that’s in the film.

S: I know, I know, which is great and beautiful. But I’m just saying, the jazz that’s in his movies—you weren’t hearing any jazz at that time in film and stuff. So when people go, “Oh, were you worried about how the movie was going to da da da?”, it’s like, “No, I wasn’t worried at all.” He was the right guy. There was no question. We didn’t even have a second person on the list. They were like, “Who would you want to film this?” And we said, “Spike.” And they were like, “Who else if there’s no time?” And we were like, “We don’t know anybody else.” We literally didn’t know anybody else. 

AVC: Spike, you have a pretty good collection of these performance movies that you’ve done, with John Leguizamo and Roger Guenveur Smith. Are these just things you see, and you think, “Somebody has to get this down on film”? What motivates you to take on that role?

SL: Gotta make great cinema. I love Leguizamo’s piece, his one-man Broadway show, Freak. I love what Roger G. Smith did with Huey P. Newton. And I was blown away by what I saw with Passing Strange. And it also is a challenge to bring something from the stage and make it cinematic. Now of course, the other two examples I named were one-man shows, they weren’t musicals either. So this was a much bigger challenge. 

S: I’ve been trying to figure out a way to say this, and I haven’t said it in any interviews, but I think there’s something to be said for the choices Spike has made in these, as you call them, “performance films.” If you look at Kings Of Comedy, Leguizamo, Guenveur Smith, and us, it’s an interesting collection, you know what I’m saying? In a way, it’s like a marginal—I don’t think there’s anything marginal about the art—but Kings Of Comedy was like, I think people needed to see those guys in that context to realize what geniuses they were. The same thing with Leguizamo. A lot of people, they knew he existed, but I think there’s an urge on [Spike’s] part to say, “Hold on a minute. You guys gotta see this shit.” [Laughs.] You know what I mean? 

AVC: Bernie Mac in the movies and on TV is one thing, but he was something very different onstage.

S: Exactly. I consider Passing Strange in the same category as A Huey P. Newton Story. These are things that could have closed and fallen out of the cultural view. All those great comedians that were in that film could have just done their TV shows, and that’s all you would have known of them. But I feel like there’s kind of an interesting set of choices, and I think all those films have something in common. You know about that art because of him. And it’s a choice. It’s really a choice that he’s made. I’m extremely proud to be in that company. And I think we have something in common with that company.

AVC: Spike, the classic bad advice about putting a stage piece on film is to open it up. But you follow the play’s lead in emphasizing the theatrical artificethe members of the band interacting with the characters in the play, the way Stew is talking with the audience rather than narrating at them. 

SL: Yeah, I think that’s a very important point. We’re not going to pretend like it’s not a stage play. That’s ludicrous, as Mike Tyson would say. [Mike Tyson voice.] “It’s ludicous.” [Both laugh.] So it’s a stage play, but we’re going to add some cinematic elements to it, so it almost becomes a hybrid, and you’ve got to take people along for the ride.

AVC: You filmed the last two performances at the Belasco Theater in New York, and then you went back and did the show again, without an audience, after it had closed.

SL: Right. The next day.

AVC: That must have been a bittersweet moment for you.

S: All sweet, no bitter. There wasn’t a paid audience, but the 40 Acres crew had friends and family there, my daughter was there, his sister Joie was there, his brother was there. Both families were there. So there were people. I did feel like I was still performing for people. But no, there was no bitter, man, because I was ready for the play to close. And I was even more ready for the play to close, because I knew it was being documented. And so that last day was fun. I didn’t want it to end, you know?

AVC: Having been in rock bands for so long, was it tough for you to play the same set every night? You’re not like one of those stadium bands where the set list gets laminated at the start of the tour.

S: It was rough, it was rough. [Director] Annie Dorsen luckily built in a lot of moments where we could do whatever we wanted, so we had time to improvise. I stumbled into this theater bag, you know? And it was rough doing eight shows a week of the same show, basically.

SL: I don’t know how they do it.

S: I don’t know how they do it either. But it was a great experience that I think made me a better performer ultimately, and I learned a lot. I learned some disciplines that I didn’t know before, like remembering lines and things like that. So, no, it was helpful. It was very helpful. And I would like to direct films someday, so it helped me to understand acting a little bit better. So that was all good, but next year me and Heidi are going to go back out on the road and play shows. 

SL: Let me ask you this. Is remembering lyrics to a song the same as remembering lines, or are they different?

S: When I wrote lines that were more lyrical and rhythmic, I can remember them like lyrics. When I wrote that straight dialogue-sounding stuff, that was the stuff that was hard to remember. That’s why rhyming exists. The history of rhyming is to remember shit easier. That’s why rhyming exists. 

AVC: Given where the play ends up in regard to “the Real,” there’s a certain irony in how people ask you how much is autobiographical and how much is invented. But you do foster a certain identification between the narrator and the Youth, especially at the end of the play. And you reuse portions of the Stew song “Drug Suite,” which is clearly autobiography, but you change it from first person to third.

S: That was something we played around with a lot, all through both runs, what exact language. I just kept fooling around with it until I found something that felt good. I also wanted to keep him on his toes, because Daniel’s the kind of actor where he’s so good, you can spring stuff on him. So sometimes I would change lines. In front of audiences, I would say something different, and then you could see a real reaction, you know?

We did play with that line between real and unreal, but I can’t emphasize enough that these characters are creations, in that they are composites. They’re composites of a lot of people. They’re composites of a lot of the great black expatriates, they’re composites of people I know personally. Every single one of them. There’s not a pure case of autobiography in any one of them, but they all come from real-life situations.

AVC: What you were talking about before, about black teen angst being undocumented—is that why you settled on this particular story in the first place? 

S: I settled on the story because of George Bush. Because when I lied to the Public Theater and said I had a musical that I was writing—every songwriter says he’s got a musical he’s writing, we tell people that all the time, and we never think anyone’s going to take us up on it. So when Bill Bragin from Joe’s Pub, which is connected to the Public Theater, said, “Okay, let’s see some pages,” I started thinking about what to write about. I think that week was when Bush was going to Europe as president, for the first time in his life, and I just thought, “Now, there’s some brothers that can’t afford to go to Europe, there’s some white folks that can’t afford to go to Europe, there’s all kinds of folks that can’t afford to go to Europe. But this dude owned planes. He owned his own plane. He should have been everywhere, right?” I’m thinking, “Wow, that’s just so interesting, that I was 15 years old, wanting to go to New York and Paris.” I was dreaming of something beyond my world. And this cat hadn’t been nowhere, right? And it just tripped me out, and I wanted to write a play about—

SL: The most powerful man in the world had never left the northern continent.

S: Yeah. So really, it started about me writing about travel and about curiosity. And then it got into more of this expatriate thing that I had experienced. Even before this play, what Spike and I share is this obsession with showing that black culture isn’t a monolith. It’s always something that’s a part of me in whatever I’m doing. Records I make, the kind of music I choose, whatever, is to spread that point—not like I’m some kind of preacher trying to preach a message, but because we want to be represented. That’s all. We just want to be, “Hey, we’re humans too,” you know? 

AVC: You use an all-black cast, but they frequently play white characters, which is something you let dawn on the audience gradually. It’s up to us to check our assumptions and realize, “Wait a minute, they’re white.”

S: Yeah. That’s our Wizard Of Oz thing. We struggled about the casting of this play, and we did interracial casting before, with whites and blacks.

SL: For this?

S: In workshops. And it didn’t work. It somehow didn’t work. Then one day, we were sitting around, saying, “Well, okay, if white and black people don’t work, then what do we do?” Me and Annie and Heidi, we’d just finished a workshop for it, and it just didn’t work interracially, so finally, we said, “What if it’s just all black people? What if it’s like The Wizard of Oz?” For me, the little subtext of this film, of the casting, is that you never really leave home. These people are always kind of there with you, and that was an important part of this whole casting issue. Then when we got into that, we developed a whole subtext where, like, Mr. Venus is just the realization of what Mr. Franklin would have been if he could have waved his freak flag, you know what I mean?

SL: [Laughs.] Waved his freak flag?

S: As George Clinton used to say. Or no, Hendrix said that. That’s Hendrix’s line, “Wave your freak flag high.” So Edwina Williams, who was wanting him to be a middle-class good boy with a corporation job, she ends up being a freaky Dutch girl who’s not materialistic, you know what I mean? I really like the fact that it’s still the same black folks. And I think it also gives them a chance to do something as actors. Oh, man, they loved it. When are they going to get a chance to play Germans? Never. Never again. It’s not going to happen.

AVC: One of the things that makes traditional rock music work is the underlying assumption that singers are speaking from the depths of themselves. Unless they’re explicitly playing a character, or telling a story, it’s assumed that what they’re saying is what they personally believe, which is something a lot of singers have gotten in trouble for.

S: Perfect example.

SL: Michael Jackson. “They Don’t Care About Us.” “Jew me, sue me, kick me, kike me.” They had to pull the record out of the stores. 

S: Really? Wow. 

SL: B’nai B’rith, JDL, The Simon Wiesenthal Center. They were on Michael’s ass. 

S: Wow, wow. Deep. I didn’t know that. 

SL: But Michael wasn’t anti-Semitic. It’s funny. If you’ve seen Taxi Driver, Scorsese can play a character and say, “See that window up there? My wife’s up there. She’s with a nigger. You ever seen what a .44 can do to a pussy?” He can say that, and be the character—and that’s my man, too—but nothing. And then Michael. That wasn’t his thing. Every song you sing has to be your own? You can’t let the character speak for you? “Psycho Killer,” David Byrne? Come on.

S: Right.

AVC: And that feeds into hip-hop, and the equation of street cred and authenticity, the way the rappers that are most successful are perceived and often misrepresent themselves as being from this ghetto background.

S: Lot of middle-class, yeah. Yeah.

SL: Because you’re not deemed authentic. If you’re not from the projects, you’re not a real G. A gangster.

AVC: Stew, your character in Passing Strange seems to bridge the gulf between theater and live rock music. You’re taking the direct connection with an audience that rock provides, then mixing it into a more traditional narrative thing where it’s more about identification of character and not speaking in the first person. Is that something you played with? 

S: It was the key conversation we had, what you’re talking about right now. That’s exactly what we wanted to do. We wanted to combine what happens in a rock performance with what happens in a play. It gets down to this whole Aristotelian drama thing about the protagonist has to change, all those theater rules.

SL: Hate that shit.

S: See, what I explained to our director is that in rock ’n’ roll, the protagonist is the lead singer, but the protagonist doesn’t change in rock ’n’ roll. His job is to change you when you come to the show. Prince doesn’t change when he has a show. You are supposed to be changed by that experience. Stevie Wonder doesn’t change, right? You go to a Stevie Wonder concert to be changed, to come out with a different experience. I said, “The character in this show doesn’t really change. He is about to change later on in life, maybe, but right now, in this little window, he’s the same dude when it ends.” So we were taking that rock thing, singing from yourself as opposed to singing from character. We talked about that a lot, and that was a big part of how we set the show up. 

AVC: Has that been done in theater, where the band is integrated into the show to such an extent?

S: Not the way we did it. The theater geeks told me we had a lot of firsts. They told us—literally, I had somebody research this—we never had a black cast play all these white folks. I know that. They told us that. Spring Awakening had a band onstage, but they stick along the back wall, and they’re not a band, they’re a bunch of hired musicians. This band plays shows together. This band toured together.

AVC: In the credits it says, “Music by The Negro Problem.”

S: Yeah, it’s a band. We make records. This is a real band, so there’s that too. But I think what’s really unique is the blend between rock ’n’ roll representation with character, where the lead singer really gets to sing from himself, and blending that with character creation. But the new thing that’s really going to stick is the structure of this film. The approach to this film. His shit gets bitten all the time, in terms of its innovations. And I think people now are going to be looking at this, and going, “Hmm, what can I do to make a film of my musical to make it rock like this shit?”

AVC: One of the actors, De’Adre Aziza, is also credited as a camera operator. Does that mean the Super 8 camera she’s holding in one scene actually had film in it?

S: Yeah.

SL: She shot it. 

AVC: So was the camera already in the scene? 

SL: It’d been in the show, right? 

S: She was never shooting.

SL: But what would have been the purpose of the shooting, though? 

S: I’m just saying that’s the beauty, that’s something that’s so cool about the way this crew met with our crew. That little fact, to me, is such a great example of that collaboration between Spike’s crew and our crew, just for Spike to make that call. Because you know they could have shot it, but to have her actually onstage shooting it, that’s an example of how we worked this thing together. And I have to say, for me and Heidi on our end, Spike came in with such a supportive attitude. There was no star-power vibe. He could have easily pulled that, and we would have accepted it. [Laughs.] We would have been fine. “Roll however you want.”

SL: Pull an Otto Preminger. [Laughs.]

S: Right, right. Exactly. [Both laugh.] “You gotta do it this way!” So there was a lot of respect, and it just made us even more excited. 

AVC: The Youth’s formulates the concept of the Real in response to a church service, although that may have more to do with the music they’re playing than the substance of the sermon.

S: The church is the music. I mean, the music is the church. That’s what this kid learns. My kid just got back from Ghana, my 17-year-old, and she was talking about the way dance and music were so integrated in the village that she was living in. That’s what this kid knows, and maybe some of those other people in church don’t know, is that that’s where the spirit actually lives. That’s what gets you going. The Bible says “Make a joyful noise.” The Bible doesn’t say “Put down your instruments.” The Bible doesn’t say “Sit in a room, all quiet.” It’s right there in the Bible, so it’s like the real story is the music is what makes the spirit. 

I have this problem with a lot of people, because I come from this world, and I might not be one of these cats that go to church every Sunday, but I don’t hate on religion. I don’t hate on it, because I feel like I have a fundamental understanding of it, that you can’t hate on it just to be hating on it. It serves a purpose. This world is not perfect. There’s a reason why people go to church. Same reason why people go to concerts, same reason why people go to films. People want to know something else in this world. So when people go to church, it’s not just all Jerry Falwell hypocritical crap, you know? A lot of it is people requiring a spiritual experience that they also get from art. I wish more Americans knew that they could get it from art as well.