What does Pride Month look like at La MaMa, where queer artists of all kinds have always found open doors? What does Pride mean, when queer artists have been the foundation of the experimental work that has made La MaMa, La MaMa? What it means in the archive is an atmosphere of queerness – it’s all around us, every day, in the material we handle, in the footage we watch, in the catalog records we create. It just is – a natural part of our ecosystem, which is, perhaps, a vision of the world we could be living in.
This ecosystem reflects Ellen Stewart’s vision, the one she developed as she took her touring companies all over the world, then returned with the artists she’d met on those travels, and provided time, care, and resources for them here at La MaMa, enriching the theater and the city with new voices and stories. Today, as we hear endless talk of inclusivity and diversity, I often find myself thinking of Ellen’s vision, of La MaMa, and the way I can see what diversity really means here in the La MaMa archive. It is not a matter of tokenism, or political correctness, but rather a naturalization of what it really means to be a human being – which is to say indefinable, innumerable and multifaceted.
In some ways, this means that trying to do something special for Pride at the archive feels a little redundant. I’m working with and celebrating queer artistry in my every day, for which I’m very grateful. That doesn’t mean, however, that it isn’t fun to take the opportunity to show off a few of my favorites in the La MaMa archive – and there are so very many.
First up is Belle Reprieve, a send up of A Streetcar Named Desire that was staged at La MaMa in 1991, after a run in London. Split Britches is a lesbian theater company founded by Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver, who both starred in the show. It was a joint production with Bloolips, which was an all male drag performance group, the mirror to Split Britches’ lesbian theater. Less adaption and more parody, Belle Reprieve treats Streetcar as a kind of modern myth, employing drag and masquerade to fuck with gender identity and sexuality; in the words of the OUT Magazine review, “a gender melee of an already gender confused play.” Perhaps the best summation of the play comes at the very top of the script, with the cast list:
“MITCH, a fairy disguised as a man (Paul Shaw); STELLA, a woman disguised as a woman (Lois Weaver); STANLEY, a butch lesbian (Peggy Shaw); BLANCHE, a man in a dress (Bette Bourne).”
In 1972, three members of Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatre Company formed the Trockadero Gloxinia Ballet Company, often headlined by co-founder Larry Ree, who performed under the name Ekathrina Sobechanskaya. A loving parody of classical ballet forms and traditions, this particular Trockadero performance happened at the Pyramid Club on Avenue A, and took place in October, in honor of the October Revolution. Of a show in May, the Villager wrote, “[Ree] has always been quite precise in insisting that the Trocks are not a drag group…” Instead, Ree insists they dance “en travestie”:
“It is a very sophisticated approach to material by which a kind of wry humor is achieved that is not at all the ‘travesty’ that the English implies. Properly understood, [en travestie] does rather exactly describe what the troupe does, for though their dancing on point is often humorous, it is never cheap, never happy, never broadly satirical. It is not a joke about ballet, but a joke inside ballet — one made through great knowledge and great love.”
Harry Koutoukas was an Off Off-Broadway founder, legend, and icon who put up shows at La MaMa and Caffe Cino, injecting surrealism and the absurd into the lifeblood of American Theater. One show in particular was a set of two monologues; “One Man’s Religion/The Pinotti Papers”, performed by Harvey Fierstein, debuting his first time out of drag on stage.
The first monologue, One Man’s Religion, takes place in a “burned-out writer’s apartment in NYC – mid 1970s” and the Pinotti Papers was “set in the heart of a dead Alcholic-Cocaine Addict”. Koutoukas was wildly prolific, turning out 3 plays a year during the 60s and 70s, many of which were produced at La MaMa, including “Medea in the Laundromat,” which Koutoukas called “a ritualistic camp.” An early adopter of camp in theater, Koutoukas flouted convention and obeyed no law but, in his own words, “the ancient law of glitter.” According to the reviewer from the SoHo Weekly News who went to see Fierstein perform “One Man’s Religion/The Pinotti Papers,”:
“There are shows, good and bad, that I feel I have things to say about. And there are other shows that are their own review, their own entirety. These are very special. They deserve their own unrefracted existence, in their own words. These Koutoukas ‘plays’ are such shows. To be seen, heard, experienced, in their own right. Just go.”
Describing Jeff Weiss‘ series of one-man-shows, that were performed as recently as 2015, is no easy task. This first performance in 1966 was a chaotic series of monologues in which he assailed the audience with, “a cascade of fantasies, reminiscences, meditations, poetry-readings, and miscellaneous schticks…” Many years later, theater professor Alisa Solomon observed that, “critics didn’t yet have the language for the queer interventions of Weiss’s confounding yet compelling work, which addressed subjects like racism, liberal hypocrisy, sadistic parenting, and sexual violence.” With this 1966 kick off, Weiss began the artistic journey that would cement him in Off Off-Broadway legend, disrupting not only notions of gender and sexuality, but the conventions of theater and performance, leading reviewer Ross Wetzsteon to call Rent, “one of the most moving and harrowing experiences I’ve ever had.”
I’m ending this very brief glimpse into La MaMa’s rich queer legacy with Tom Eyen, one of La MaMa’s earliest and most celebrated playwrights – someone whose work should have been mandatory viewing for any celebrity who thought they had a good outfit for the Met’s 2019 Gala. A prolific La MaMa contributor, Eyen did 35 plays at La MaMa between 1964 and 1974, including Miss Nefertiti Regrets (Bette Midler’s New York City stage debut), Why Hanna’s Skirt Won’t Stay Down, The White Whore and the Bit-Player, Sarah B. Divine, and Frustrata. Eyen would go on to win the Tony for best book for Dreamgirls, but his roots were in Caffe Cino, in La MaMa, and in camp. One of his most famous, and perhaps most notorious camp plays was Women Behind Bars (1975), which featured long-time Eyen collaborator Helen Hanft, and would be revived a year later with Divine starring.
His dual shows happening at La MaMa and the Cino, seen above, earned a review from the Village Voice that managed to work the words “loud”, “crude”, “appealing” and “vulgar” into a glowing review – exactly the kind of praise that a queer artist might dream of.