By Rory Winston
Whether Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye or the recently departed legend Prince, many an icon has suffered at the hands of an abusive father, their respective relationships having left a distinct mark on both their lives and their creative output. Another artist who could easily lay claim to a similar set of experiences is the playwright/composer/lyricist Mark Stewart known by his stage name, Stew. In his 2008 Tony Award and Desk Drama Award winning play, Passing Strange, a song early in Act I (entitled the Baptist Fashion Show) describes how Reverend Jones revs up a crowd ‘feeling the spirit,’ while a troubled youth simultaneously calls out, “This is as phony as it gets.” Clearly Stew had unfinished business with his own preachy paterfamilias. In The Total Bent – his most recent effort – Stew manages some form of closure. Well, if not closure, then at least the right amount of soul, blues, punk and gospel-infused rock and roll to make up for any shortcomings in plot.
Done in collaboration with his stage partner of many years, Heidi Rodewald, The Total Bent is a black artist’s coming-of-age story, one in which character development comes less through chronological sequence than by way of idiosyncratic memories, odd impressions and life-altering revelations. This is hardly surprising given that the process behind the finalized work is more closely akin to the construction of a band’s album than it is to the development of a musical. Instead of first finalizing a score that is then presented to a group of actors, Stew and Rodewald reworked the entirety of the play through a series of “jams” wherein parts were dropped, harmonies added, and songs and stories rearranged with the help of the ‘band members’ (performers) throughout the duration of the long rehearsal period. Likewise, most of the cast are not only excellent musicians who double as actors but are more like a collective of creative artists who have each done remarkable projects in their own right.
VONDIE CURTIS HALL (of Dreamgirls renowned) plays Joe Roy, a charismatic if oppressive bible belt singer/healer who owes his best songs to his gifted composer of a son, Marty – a Stew-like character played with just the right amount of passion and insouciance by Ato Blankson-Wood. With a hunger for creating something both profound and timely, Marty veers away from his father’s self-serving sermonizing in order to embark on a type of spirituality that is socially relevant. Marty’s religious order is that of making music, the kind of music that is capable of catalyzing socio-political change. Allowing himself to be vulnerable in front of a crowd, confessing publicly to his inner demons, getting all sweaty on stage and making others ready to receive catharsis via his unfiltered performance becomes Marty Roy’s evangelical mission. David Cale’s hilarious rendition of a British record producer on the verge of his big discovery lends an ironic edge to the genuinely ambitious aspirations of our hero, illuminating the artifice that exists behind even the most authentic art.
Directed with perfect pacing by Joanna Settle, the play makes us feel as if we were partaking in a creative process as much as bearing witness to a testament. This is not to say that anything is improvised; but the story retains an open-endedness, one that is subject to reinterpretation. Here nuance is not relegated solely to a given actor’s execution of their role but calls into question elements that are integral the theme itself – nowhere is this more evident than when the composers themselves join the band onstage thereby breaking the illusion of a closed story. Likewise, Choreographer David Neumann seems to have a knack for allowing personal narratives to converge; while scenic designer Andrew Lieberman along with Costume designer Gabriel Berry create a timeless world by having the allegorical set of a recording studio that exists somewhere in the Deep South and clothing that evoke the 1970’s purposefully jar with the contemporary dialogue – the crisscrossing motifs allowing for timely social concerns to be raised while the issues themselves remain devoid of a specifically recognizable timeframe. With the inimitable Grammy winning Marty Beller as music director (and, incidentally, a regular member of Stew’s band Negro Problem), the play is not just a collection of anecdotes and moods but a cohesive concerto of sorts where soloists (whether in dialogue or song form) come and go making this work a veritable genre in its own right.
In a sense, the unique construction of the play is alluded to in its very title – meaning, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Unfulfilled Dreams speech wherein he stated: “God does not not judge us by the separate incidents or the separate mistakes that we make, but by the total bent of our lives.” In the case of this work: it is not just scenes and songs, themes and moods, stories and allegories but a living enactment of a complete concept album before a live audience. As albums go, The Total Bent reflects the bent of Stew’s own life. Made of the finest musical ingredients and Stewed (sic) to perfection, it made me want to yell out the words of the Prince classic: “All the critics love you in New York.” And if they don’t, they should.