La MaMa Cantata

Written and directed by Elizabeth Swados
Music composed by Elizabeth Swados
[based on the words of and stories about Ellen Stewart]
Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 East 4th Street 2nd Floor
December 29-30, 2011 [encore engagement]
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
December 29, 2011

(L-R) Charnele Crick, Alicia Olatuja, Grace McLean, Starr Busby. Photo by Peter James Zielinski.

On what would have been Ellen Stewart’s 92nd birthday, November 7, 2011, a world premiere of La MaMa Cantata was presented an enthusiastic reception, from all accounts.  A compilation of words by and about the creator and mother of La MaMa Experimental Theatre Company, set to rousing and loving music by Liz Swados who found her artistic self as one of MaMa’s “babies” and inserts a young version of herself as part of the ensemble on stage.  A second performance on November 8th, and rousing response to both, inspires two additional performances this month (last night and tonight).  In a theatre named after Ellen Stewart herself, seated just in front of Liz Swados herself, I feel the music through my entire body generated by the foot stomping music director (Kris Kukul) and pianist at stage right and the 14 stunning young performers on stage before me.  I feel the presence of a woman I never met through the emotional reverberations, the stage thrumming beat keeping, and the words themselves — some of which sound as if taken from the testimonials and tributes at Stewart’s memorial service, some of which are presented as words of the woman herself at different points throughout her life.  There is richness and love and multiple musical genres and wonder in the text and the score.

Calypso, rhythm and blues, straight-forward knock your socks off rock anthem.  Fourteen voices.  Six singers present aspects of Ellen’s life — four black women, one white woman, one white man.  All the emotional colors of the rainbow through a range of musical styles resolve without stereotype: color is not the point here or in Stewart’s life.  The focus of the Cantata’s celebration is the commitment to creating a place where theatre could be created by a corralling parental figure who is described as having “transvestite humor.”  Ring dem bells.

I leave the theatre wishing that there were plans to record this beautiful testimonial filled with marvelous ballads and rousing tunes that deserve their place in the American Songbook.  And when I return home I realize that yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.  A version of the show was recorded by this cast on December 28, 2011.  And the press release tells me that this evening’s performance will be live-streamed (check the La MaMa web site at the top of this page for details). Huge music-loving and foremother-appreciating smiles, and a few tears of remembrance, take me into the new year.  What a fabulous way to ring down the curtain on a performance rich 2011.

© Martha Wade Steketee (December 30, 2011)

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