On Sunday, October 16th, 4th Street between Second and Third Avenue in Manhattan was named Ellen Stewart Way, and this street naming was the culmination of a block party in honor of the founder of La MaMa, a theater that has presented innovative work for fifty years. Stewart, its founder, La MaMa herself, died on January 13th, 2011, at age 91. She made a point of saving everything, so the La MaMa space on 4th Street now has a large wing devoted to its own history, the costumes, the masks, the programs that made it such a truly living theater. I took the tour of the La MaMa archive with about a dozen people, one of whom was Diane Lane, who had acted at La MaMa.
The next night, October 17th, was a celebration of La MaMa that began with a heartfelt toast from Bill Irwin and went forward with performances that included Lane in Wallace Shawn’s The Hotel Play, a scene from Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy with Estelle Parsons and John Kelly, excerpts from some Jackie Curtis material done in scorching fashion by Justin Bond, “Play Dat,” a poem read by Amiri Baraka, and, maybe most impressively, Taylor Mac’s jaunty but soul-baring song about his love life. The evening ended with Elizabeth Swados’s "La MaMa Cantata," a musical tribute to Stewart that will play on November 7th and 8th at La MaMa.
The first Ellen Stewart award was given to Sam Shepard, who sent a video message of remembrance. As a young man, he wanted to put on a play, and he didn’t know where to do it. He was pointed in the direction of Stewart, who told him that she would do his play before he had even finished asking her. “She always wore these tight pants and these green, flowing shirts... she was very sexy,” he said. This is where Shepard and so many other theater people got their start; he also remembered selling coffee in the café.
Mia Yoo has taken over the theater as artistic director, and the program for the coming season shows Stewart’s commitment to work from abroad and also her full commitment to downtown talent. The juiciest offering certainly appears to be a barely-known Tennessee Williams play, Now The Cats With Jeweled Claws, which features Mink Stole and Everett Quinton in the cast and runs October 27-November 13. Young performer Joseph Keckler will also be playing La MaMa in November, and December sees the return of John Fleck, one of the NEA Four, with his new solo performance, Mad Women.
My experience of La MaMa over the last ten years was as a sort of vital, collaborative womb run with warmth and toughness by Mama Stewart, who always began each performance with the ringing of a bell. She has now become a kind of museum in her own theater, her image hovering over the place protectively as it moves forward under Yoo’s guidance. La MaMa, like any theater, is only as good as its artists, but the point of the place is that it opens its arms to all artists and offers them needed support. The results artistically count for something, of course, but that openness is still crucial if any new work of quality will be done on the stage in this city.
(Photos: La MaMa/Facebook)