When Mark Stewart, known more widely as the musician and playwright Stew, walked onstage with his band The Negro Problem at the ’62 Center Saturday night, the audience wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The instruments onstage hinted at the musical aspect of the performance, but this show was more than a traditional concert.
The band began its set by warming up with a harmonious cacophony. From this discord emerged the first song of the act: a reprisal of Pharoah Sanders and Leon Thomas’s “The Creator Has a Master Plan.” Gradually, this song melted into a Stew original called “The Kingdom of Drink.” A witty song filled with allusions to alcoholism, the melody invoked eerie keyboard chords. Stew punctuated his lyrics with energetic gestures, illustrating to the audience the references to drunkenness in the song. He called out different endings for the number to his bandmates, experimenting with the effect of each collective sound.
“If you haven’t figured it out by now, we’re just having fun,” Stew told the audience. Breaking the fourth wall, he chatted with viewers about the confusion of traveling to Williamstown from New York City after Hurricane Sandy. Stew casually described a recent trip he’d taken to Aspen, Colo., with an acting troupe as a way to introduce the band’s next song. The anecdote, as he so enthusiastically shared, involved a night where the group was rejected from a restaurant near closing time, but after their director spoke with the maître d’, they were admitted. According to Stew, the director just told the host who he was. “Who I was that night is the only black man in Aspen, and he didn’t wanna piss off Denzel [Washington],” Stew said.
Onstage he sang “Black Men Ski,” a song that incorporated elements of Stew’s experience in Aspen. He adlibbed surprised reactions to seeing black men ski during the chorus, delighting the audience with his facial expressions and intonation. After the comic social commentary of “Black Men Ski,” the band transitioned to songs they performed at an event at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago this October. Stew notified the audience that the Chicago-specific references within this portion of the show might not make sense to a Williamstown crowd, but jokingly reminded them that this performance was free.
Next the band played a song about Chicago’s Haitian founder, Jean Baptiste Pont du Sable. Stew crooned about the city’s African and Native American roots, whispering “Chicago is mulatto, Chicago is mulatto, Chicago is mulatto.” This chant gave way to “America’s mulatto” as the music swelled with the power of the saxophone, trumpet, drums, guitar and keyboard. Following those thought-provoking refrains, Stew talked about commandeering role that racial issues play in his music. In answering a question about the racial themes in his music, Stew gave the audience a piece of advice: “Don’t think. Don’t ever have contact with people. Because then you will come to conclusions. And then you will write songs about race.”
The next song of the set, “Skin,” concerned the Great Migration, a mass exodus of African Americans north to urban centers like Chicago after World War I. The song discussed the reverse of that relocation, describing how some blacks left the city when they felt alienated. “There ain’t no love in this city” sang Stew, channeling the voices of those who retreated. After the heavy mood induced by the sobering subject of “Skin,” the band played a song about African-American painter Archibald Motley. Much like Stew, Motley was an artist intrigued by the interplay between race, skin color and identity. In the middle of the song describing the colors of Motley’s canvas, Stew called out for someone to take a solo. He listened to his talented bandmates improvise riffs and intersect melodies, just as enthralled as the audience. Stew turned towards his colleagues on stage, passing around the solo by pointing at each group member. Soon, the only sound in the room was the music of the soloist dancing through the theater.
After a stretch of impressive improvised solos, the band ended their number on Archibald Motley and transitioned to a song called “Machine.” Following “Machine” was a song called “Sunny,” which illustrated the story of Sun Ra, a prolific jazz composer and philosopher who claimed he visited Saturn while living in Chicago. Stew explicitly identified with Sun Ra, singing “Music is my Saturn, and Saturn’s where I’m from.” The crescendo of improvisation at the end of “Sunny” marked the end of the music of this performance. Stew then introduced his band members to the crowd, praising their incredible creative ability and musical skill. This end to the show embodied the very essence of the performance: a casual gathering of audience and musicians of the highest caliber.