Stew's HIGH SUBSTITUTE FOR THE HEAD LECTURER to Premiere at Harlem Stage in March

Performances will run March 22 and 23.

By: Feb. 27, 2024
Stew's HIGH SUBSTITUTE FOR THE HEAD LECTURER to Premiere at Harlem Stage in March
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Harlem Stage will present the premiere of Tony Award-winning playwright, composer, performer, and Harvard University professor Stew’s HIGH SUBSTITUTE FOR THE HEAD LECTURER, an evening of music and words working through Amiri Baraka’s, and LeRoi Jones’, twin influences on his life and art. Baraka, previously known as LeRoi Jones, was a legendary writer and founder of the Black Arts Movement, which Harlem Stage explored in programs throughout its 2022-23 season. He was awarded the Harlem Stage Transformative Artist Award in 2019.

HIGH SUBSTITUTE is the second in Stew’s series of “black superhero free-constructions,” which began with his critically acclaimed Notes of a Native Song, the musical meditation on James Baldwin, also commissioned by Harlem Stage. The New York Times deemed Notes a “a celebration of Baldwin’s legacy as an inspiration for artists to create their own work that, like his, defies genres and expectations.” In the spirit of that work, HIGH SUBSTITUTE will irreverently transmit troubadour songs scribbled on and about the life trail blazed by Baraka Jones.

The “black superhero free-constructions” series is, for Stew, inextricably linked to his relationship with Harlem Stage—which began as an audience member at a 2012 Cecil Taylor concert. “If we’re talking about superheroes, he was one of them—and there was something about the space, the way it looked and where it was, and I just went up to the first person at a desk and said, ’I'd like to play here. Can I play here?,’” he recalls. Soon after, with the intention of creating a work about Harlem, he met with Artistic Director Patricia Cruz, who proposed that he should dedicate a project to the legacy of James Baldwin—whose life and artistry had been so influential to his own journey. 

“I thought, ‘okay this is my place now,’” he says. “Harlem Stage is the place for these superhero shows. I saw Baraka read for the first time in Harlem about ten blocks from Harlem Stage; doing this anywhere else wouldn’t be the same. When we did Notes of a Native Song, we literally had people in the audience who knew Baldwin when he was 14 years old; people who knew his family; we had his family, themselves. Toni Morrison was there, sitting in the front row in front of my horrific guitar amp.”

Stew equates Baldwin’s life to a map that opened up his own artistic path, while Baraka’s he says feels more like “multiple choice”—given the range of styles, ideologies, and movements he embraced in his life. Where the legacies of these disparate figures coalesce, for him, is around an “expansive Blackness”—with Baraka as a figure who dared to “live out loud; it got messy, it got embarrassing, it got beautiful,” he says.

“While I'm drawn aesthetically to his early work as LeRoi Jones, I can't deny the hard truths that exist within the later work: as American artists, and as Black American artists definitely, we are fighting with how to deal with capitalism, and also fighting to write the poem that we just feel like f-ing writing Baraka was always interrogating the effectiveness of art: he was doing it in all these different places and ways, from doing "art for the artist's sake" in the beginning, all the way to Black Nationalism, to revolutionary communism. You see him failing sometimes and you also see him being so incredibly, majestically successful in his writing, when nobody nails it like he does.”

Rather than focus on any given moment along a shape-shifting path, and rather than trying to sculpt an unruly legacy into anything resembling straightforward biography, Stew reconciles the many components of his artistry in a third character he calls “Baraka Jones.” He traces and musicalizes his influence, with his 15-piece ensemble, Baba Bibi.. Stew highlights what he sees as the consistent drive of Baraka Jones’ work: “to use and stretch poetry and see if it could actually do something other than be just poetry.” 

About Stew 

Stew is a Tony Award and two-time Obie Award winning playwright/performer, a critically acclaimed singer/songwriter, and veteran of multiple dive-bar stages. He is currently the Professor of the Practice of Musical Theater Writing at Harvard University. at Harvard University where his classes are hothouses of multi-disciplinary, self-challenging experimentation as he strives to demystify the creative process for his students.

Stew’s work has been featured on multiple occasions at Lincoln Center, the United Nations, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Getty Museum, Hammer Museum, UCLA Live, Seattle Repertory Theater, NPR, and Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, among others. In 2015 Stew, along with artistic partner Heidi Rodewald, performed Notes of a Native Song, a work they created that included a collage of songs, text, and video inspired by James Baldwin and commissioned and produced by Harlem Stage as part of their yearlong celebration honoring Baldwin.

Stew’s works include Maybe There’s Black People in Fort Green, written for Spike Lee’s TV show She’s Gotta Have It (2019); A Clown with the Nuclear Code, written for Spike Lee’s TV show She’s Gotta Have It (2018); Resisting My Resistance to the Resistance, Metropolitan Museum of Art (2017); Mosquito Net, (NYUAD Arts Center, Abu Dhabi (2016); Notes of a Native Song, commissioned and produced by Harlem Stage. performed worldwide (2015 to present); Wagner, Max!!! Wagner!!! commissioned by and debuted at Kennedy Center, DC (2015); among others. Stew & The Negro Problem have released 12 critically acclaimed albums between 1997 and the present. Stew is the composer of Gary Come Home of Sponge Bob SquarePants fame, which, honestly, is all anyone cares about anyway.