Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Mama and The Papa

Her nickname was Mama, pronounced Ma-maah. She was a black woman from Louisiana, who came to New York to begin a career that she would not be allowed to pursue in almost any other U.S. city. In 1961 she rented the basement of a building on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and started an experimental theater, which she named Café La Mama.

She started her theater to help two of her friends who wanted to be playwrights. Even back then, Broadway was ruled by box office mainstreamism, and Off-Broadway -- once a freer alternative -- was fast becoming a near clone. The fresh artistic voices that were often angry, irreverent, even revolutionary, found homes in the random collection of New York churches, cafes and basements that became collectively known as Off-Off-Broadway.

La Mama began with tiny audiences. Mama would walk on stage before each performance and ring a cowbell to get all five or ten, in attendance, to stop talking. To sustain the theater and the playwrights and actors who slept on her floor and ate her food, Mama kept her day job.

They did daring, ground-breaking work in that basement at 321 Ninth Street, work that got them noticed, but they were forced to move, several times – pushed out by complaining neighbors, racism, phony charges of prostitution, zoning regulations, and license requirements aimed at cleaning up the riff-raff.

New York was not hospitable, but Mama dealt with it all, attracting, protecting, and nurturing new artists, allowing them to push the artistic envelope, while she battled city hall.

Mama’s real name was Ellen Stewart. You can be an avid theatergoer and not recognize the name. She was a tireless promoter, but never a self-promoter, which might explain why the names of some that she nurtured: Sam Shepard, Terence McNally, Nick Nolte, Bette Midler, Harvey Keitel, Danny DeVito, James Coco, and Al Pacino are more recognizable. Ellen introduced Harold Pinter to American audiences.

In 1965 Ellen took her show on the road. Her troupe performed in Belgium, Germany, Italy, Denmark, and eventually in more than 70 countries. Ellen spread the gospel of experimental theater all over the world, and brought the world’s artists back to La Mama.

In the late 1960s, La Mama, the anti-Broadway, harnessed the energy, creativity, and social upheaval of the times in ways that sometimes pushed their productions onto Broadway stages, Hair, Godspell, and Jesus Christ Superstar started at La Mama before going neon.

Even with success, La Mama lacked a permanent home, that is, until 1970 when Ellen’s tenacious fundraising, having won grant money from the Ford, Rockefeller, and Kaplan foundations, enabled La Mama to buy its own building, from which it could not be evicted.

That is, until 1992, when the theater was threatened with foreclosure and needed to be saved.

Friends, made along the way, helped rescue La Mama. Friends like Robert DeNiro, Estelle Getty, Sally Kirkland, F. Murray Abraham, and Billy Crystal. Mama was never about getting rich, and maybe that had a little something to do with earning the respect and admiration of those who mattered most.

For nearly 50 years, Ellen Stewart has provided a stage for the new, the original, and the provocative.

Still, her work is not done. Asclepius is now running at La Mama. Asclepius was the Greek god of medicine and healing. Some think the play is Ellen’s poetic commentary on our present health care system. Asclepius was conceived, written, and directed by Ellen Stewart. She is believed to be 91 years old, and has been in ill health for the majority of those years.

The story of Ellen Stewart and La Mama -- from a dingy dirt floor basement to one of the most influential forces in American theater -- really is quite a story.

But it is not the story I came here to tell.

You see, in 1950, when Ellen first arrived in the Big Apple, with sixty dollars to her name, it was to pursue her dream of becoming…

…a fashion designer.

Alone and broke, she walked into St. Patrick’s Cathedral, lit some candles, and prayed for a break. On the way out, she noticed the sign across the street for Saks Fifth Avenue. She had never heard of Saks Fifth Avenue, but she walked in, found the personnel department and asked for a job. While sitting there, designer, Edith Lances walked in, looking for someone to snip threads from brassieres. Instantly, Ellen had a job.

If you don’t have religion, that might make you reconsider.

Black women who worked at Saks were required to wear blue smocks. I’m sure all blue smocked black women looked pretty much alike to everyone else. Maybe that was the point: to conceal their individuality. But, customers began to notice the colorful handmade clothing that Ellen wore under her blue smock. They wanted to know what department they could visit to buy something like it for themselves.

Three months after starting at Saks, snipping threads from bras, Ellen became executive designer of sportswear. Her designs were a sensation. She became the only American to have two gowns at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. The career of her dreams was now reality.

And she lived that reality, until her health made her quit. She had a heart condition and more. Ellen does not shed much light on the details of her life. Those who love her story are left to connect the dots themselves. But she ended up resigning from Saks and doing freelance designs for Bergdorf Goodman, Lord & Taylor, and Henri Bendel.

Then, she had a nervous breakdown. She went to Morocco for a change of scenery and a change of life. She rested and reflected. Then, she returned to New York, rented a basement and opened her theater.

And now, as commentator, Paul Harvey used to say, you know the rest of the story.

Well, not quite. There’s still a piece missing.

And here it is.

When she first arrived in New York, in 1950, she explored the neighborhoods. On the Lower East Side, she happened onto Orchard and Delancy Streets, where the sidewalks were crammed with tables and pushcarts, piled high with fabric.

There she met Abraham Diamond. The elderly Jewish merchant and the black woman from Louisiana became friends. When she’d visit, he would hand her a packet of fabric with a request to make something special. She would come back, wearing what she had made, and he would parade her around, showing off her creations -- the creations that, at Saks, would be seen and admired, sticking out, irrepressibly, from under her blue smock.

The fabric, of course, was a wonderful gift, but perhaps not as precious as the accompanying words of advice, that to find fulfillment, she should have a pushcart, and that she should push it for others.

Ellen later said that, while recovering in Morocco many years later, the words of the man she called, Papa Diamond came back to her.

The basement she rented at 321 Ninth Street was supposed to be a studio, for displaying her designs. Instead it became Café La Mama, with a pushcart wheel hung over the entrance.

Find fulfillment by pushing the cart for others. Interesting concept.

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Postscript: It is not easy to obtain the facts of Ellen Stewart’s life. Do the research and you will find contradictory information on her age, place of birth, the exact nature of her health problems, and other details that would normally be easily accessible. But, on personal matters, Ellen has not been one to set the record straight. One day there will be a definitive biography, written by a privileged member of her inner circle. Until then, she will live in the kind of mystery that surrounds an avant-garde stage character. And, she probably prefers it that way.

13 comments:

  1. Amazing story. Thanks for sharing it! When I hear stories like this, it always strikes me just how oppressed African Americans were, not that long ago. The 1960's seem like ancient history to today's kids. But it's not. We've come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.

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  2. Thank you for sharing that story. It is so easy to forget the struggles that some people dealt with in order to pave an easier road for others.
    Ellen sounds like a remarkable woman. What a lovely tribute you have made to her.

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  3. That is truly an amazing story. Thank you for sharing that with us. It was definitely inspirational. It does remind us of how much discrimination there has been across this country. I'm glad she was able to rise above it all.

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  4. Bruce, lovely story and as you mentioned very inspiring and compelling. This story just reiterates from nothing can come something great. You are a talented writer.

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  5. I'm glad you enjoyed it, Sharla.

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  6. Wow. I'm glad you directed me to this. As soon as you described the way you pronounced 'Mama' i had an instant image of her. Amazing. Fantastic story. I love things like this. Very well written too! :)

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  7. A riveting, compelling tale that I could not pull away from. As you lowered the curtain on this mesmerizing scenario, I could see in my mind's eye the pushcart wheel so clearly... An unsung American hero, and an inspiration to the following generations. Bravo. I was drawn in, and felt that I was there with the commentator, a silent fly upon the wall of overlooked history.

    John

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  8. Bruce - I thank you for your kind words. Our hearts sing songs that we cannot take credit for; mine were the words inspired by your wonderful ability to draw the listener in and make him/her feel a part of the story; a silent witness, hidden within the shadows. Mine were but remarks regarding the beauty that I beheld. Keep at it; I look forward with anticipation.

    John

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  9. This is well written Bruce. Now I see why you responded the way you did to the question I posed on my blog.
    A further question for consideration is how do we nurture the idiosyncratic beauty of the less fortunate to enable them to have equal access and opportunity? Should this be a societal task, or has America become so individualistic that we don't even care about nurturing the creative 'La Mamas' trapped inside of so many underprivileged youth of our day-and-age?

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  10. just found my way here...this is a great wrting example. imagine driving on a meandering country road - just when you think the view is in plain sight, a sudden turn and a new view opens in front of you! makes reading a lot more fun.

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  11. Great article! I am currently taking a college class of "Diversity of Society" and found the prejudice against Mama to be an applicable example of racism. I may cite this story for one of my assignments.

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  12. Great Post!! Im accidently fell on your blog page and Im glad I did! Racism is an issue that never seems to rest. Its even more evident in the church which is what I am trying to deal with on so many levels! Thanks for posting!

    I would be honored if you checked out my blog I just started at: http://generationinspiration.blogspot.com/

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