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The Negro Problem's new CD, "Making It," details the couple's breakup during "Passing Strange."

Mark Stewart and Heidi Rodewald, The Negro Problem, flank Off-Ramp contributor R.H. Greene.
Mark Stewart and Heidi Rodewald, The Negro Problem, flank Off-Ramp contributor R.H. Greene.

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I first heard about Mark Stewart and Heidi Rodewald’s amazing band The Negro Problem in the late 90s and early 2000s when I was living just off the Silver Lake reservoir, two minutes from a club called Spaceland. I drove past the Spaceland marquee regularly, and it seemed like The Negro Problem had a virtual residency in that small but sassy venue. Friends whose taste I respected kept telling me to see them, that their writerly and tuneful songs were right up my alley. But somehow I never got around to it. What a putz!

Cut to Sundance 2009. Spike Lee has a new movie, and a magazine has assigned me to say something intelligent about it. I’m a weirdo, and I try hard to go into every single screening at film festivals knowing nothing at all if possible -- no buzz, no synopsis, no nothing -- so I can have a totally fresh response. The film was called "Passing Strange," it was a musical, and that was pretty much all I knew.

But it was a lot more than a musical. It was a brilliant visual transcription of an even more brilliant piece of -- what can I call it? Musical literature. And the underlying work was by, starring, and about Stew and (more covertly) Heidi, another LA native who rejected her world as she’d known it in the name of rock and roll. "Passing Strange" was amazing and unique, worthy of comparison thematically to Ralph Ellison’s "Invisible Man" and James Baldwin’s "Another Country."

To find out with the release of The Negro Problem's new album, "Making It," that romantic turmoil was the backstage subtext to "Passing Strange" blows my mind even more, though Heidi and Stew have faced that fact squarely and with the full force of their artistry in their latest work. "Making It" is a brave conceptual piece, simultaneously characteristic and a great leap forward musically, and one of the more heartbreaking great albums you’ll hear this year. And Heidi and Stew are just as unflinching in our Off-Ramp interview as they are in their new songs.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention that "Passing Strange" -- a celebrated American stage productions, created by and starring LA natives -- has never played LA. Stew and Heidi are too gracious to say this, but I think this is a disgrace. LA artists shouldn’t have to go to New York to win Tony's and find glory. But if they do, it seems to me their hometown (which seems greedy to mount a roadshow production of a whole lot of anything else if it comes out of New York) ought to kill the fatted calf for their prodigals -- or at least lend them the use of the hall down at the Mark Taper Forum.