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    Posted January 26, 2011

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A SONG TO ELLEN STEWART


André De Shields and Ellen Stewart
photo: Marc Cohen

No actor may claim to have worked in New York theatre unless he has worked at La MaMa. I offer the following anecdote, that you may better appreciate my writing about Ellen Stewart in mythic terms.

When in 1973 this worm arrived in The City to take a bite out of The Big Apple, it was as a member of Chicago's newly founded Organic Theatre Company. The production was WARP, the world's first science-fiction epic adventure play in serial form, which debuted and briefly ran at the Ambassador Theatre. At one fateful matinee the actor was injured, who played the role of Symax, a part simian space creature. As the understudy, I went on in his place. In that audience was Ken Rubenstein, who was then directing a futuristic meditation, SACRED GUARD, in the first floor theatre at La MaMa. Ken introduced me to Ellen Stewart. No, a star was not born; however, this invitation did drip liltingly from Ellen's pouting lips: "Come, baby. Come to Mama and be her monkey." At that instant La MaMa Experimental theatre Club became my first artistic home in New York City. I vividly recall working in the several venues of La MaMa during nearly every one of the ensuing thirty-eight years.

As an artist I grew measurably and cannily there; I established life long friendships there, and when receiving out-of-town guest, I placed a visit to La MaMa on my short list of destinations along with Central Park, Harlem, Broadway and the martyred Twin Towers.

Throughout our decades of collaborating there were times when a project would particularly benefit from my participation. Oh my dear, the benevolent goddess would appear and pour beneficence in the form of encouragement, compliments and often bald-faced flattery from her cornucopia. On another occasion an uninformed innocent might breach a cardinal rule, such as do not wear the color green in Ellen's cathedral. Oh my goodness, then she would transform into a medusa, and with a stare of utter disapproval turn the offender into stone. Of course, that act of sorcery was soon followed by a stern explanation, undoing the spell.

More recently there were moments of authentic vulnerability when Ellen would say: "Baby, sing Mama a song." And I might amuse her by shouting a twelve bar blues, inspiring her to move rhythmically, suggesting a titillating, coochie dance. Or my choice might have been to caress her with a tender ballad, such as Irving Berlin's "How Deep Is the Ocean, (How High Is the Sky)." A rose never blushed as sweetly as did Ellen.

Perhaps my fondest memory regarding the Queen of World Theatre is the 1984 cabaret phenomenon, HAARLEM NOCTURNE, which brought together the likes of Marc Shaiman, Murray Horwitz, Freida Williams, Ellia English, Debra Byrd and yours truly in the Club at La MaMa. At that time the Club was in the basement of 74-A 4th Street. That space currently houses the La MaMa archives. HAARLEM NOCTURNE played forever at La MaMa, and for a New York minute on Broadway. Twenty-seven years later, HAARLEM NOCTURNE retains its cult status.

Finally, this is the winter of my extraordinary content. On Wednesday, January 12, 2011, I observed the sixty-fifth anniversary of my arrival on the Earth plane. I am convinced that Ellen Stewart postponed her transfiguration until the wee hours of Thursday morning, January 13, in order to midwife me into my metaphysical rebirth. Oh, Mama, thank you for your gifts of uncompromising vision. I am your eternally grateful monkey.

- André De Shields

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