The Native American Theatre Ensemble + La MaMa

Native American Theatre Ensemble in front of La MaMa on East 4th Street, 1972.

This week, La MaMa catalogers are working with materials related to one of the troupes that found a home at La MaMa in the 1970s: the Native American Theatre Ensemble (NATE). The Ensemble was established (as the American Indian Theatre Ensemble) in 1971 by a 26-year-old, Oklahoma-born, Kiowa-Delaware man named Hanay Geiogamah. (The group changed its name in 1973.) “The project,” according to an article published in Akswesasne Notes in 1972, “got underway in January [of 1972] with Geiogamah and associates undertaking a nine-month course in theatrical discipline and techniques at the eminent center created by Ellen Stewart in New York.” (Vol. 4, No. 4)

A program for NATE's production of

A program for NATE’s production of “Foghorn” and “Coyote Tracks” at La MaMa (1973) in which the group explains their recent name change. La MaMa Archives.

The troupe worked tirelessly over the next several years to create and perform original plays “for and about Indians” in a wide range of venues across the US and elsewhere. La MaMa’s collections– which include several cubic feet of posters, programs, photographs, correspondence, clippings, scripts, organizational records, and audiovisual materials created by and about NATE– document the Ensemble’s early years in-residence at La MaMa, its creative development, its domestic and international tour schedules, and the philosophy that drove its work. One document, entitled “A Proposal for a Tour of Indian Country by The American Indian Theatre Ensemble” (1973), notes that NATE’s goals included: 1)producing and presenting plays “about Indians” and reaching, with these plays, “every one of the 850,000 Native Americans, from reservations to urban ghettoes”; 2)contributing, with this work, to “the over-all effort to achieve freedom, equality of life and true self-determination for American Indians”; and 3)combating, eliminating and replacing (“as quickly as possible”) the “negative and defeating imagery which the media employs to portray Indian people.”

A letter to NATE from Rough Rock Community High School, March 1973. The writer explains that NATE's performance there was

A letter to NATE from a Rough Rock school teacher, March 1973. The writer explains that NATE’s performance was “one of the nicest things that has ever happened at Rough Rock.” La MaMa Archives.

Both in New York City and on tour, the troupe found enthusiastic audiences– of all ages. Fifth- and sixth-graders from the Rough Rock Demonstration School in Chinle, Arizona, sent the troupe a packet of thank-you notes after a 1973 performance. The New York Times ran a succession of articles about the group’s work, and positive reviews of NATE’s performances appeared in local papers, specialty magazines, and political newsletters. After a benefit performance at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis– the proceeds of which were donated to the Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Committee— the Minneapolis Star called their work “sophisticated,” the acting “boisterous and engaging,” and the “message…unabashedly political.”

Materials documenting NATE’s work are now cataloged and will be findable through our digital collections portal, which is due to launch in Fall of 2015. There is one set of objects that we’ve cataloged but can’t, yet, offer up to researchers: a collection of 1/2 inch open reel videos documenting NATE’s performances both in New York and on the road. These videos are fragile and difficult to play back. We’re hoping to digitize them in the next phase of our Pushcart Collection project, so that we can begin to make them available to scholars and students interested in late 20th century Native American culture and politics, political theater, and the artistic communities that have been nurtured by La MaMa.

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Find of the Day: Harvey Milk’s NYC Acting Career

Flyer for

Flyer for “Three New Plays Directed by Tom O’Horgan” (1965) [La MaMa Catalog UIN: OBJ.1965.0047]

His Wikipedia page doesn’t mention it, his official biography on the Milk Foundation website doesn’t mention it, but the La MaMa archives has proof: Harvey Milk was an actor in New York City before moving to San Francisco and beginning his political career.

These biographies do mention that Milk worked as a production associate on Broadway shows like director Tom O’Horgan’s Hair, but what they miss is that Milk starred in several of O’Horgan’s productions off-off-Broadway at La MaMa, including Changes (1968) and The New OP-ra (1965). Amusingly, on at least one occasion he performed under the pseudonym Basil Farckwart, according to a handwritten note on the flyer to the left.

Below is a photo of Milk (second from left) on stage during the July 1965 production of Three New Plays Directed by Tom O’Horgan.

Harvey Milk (with Marie-Claire Charba, Marlene Fisher, Tom O’Horgan (?) and others) on the set of “…And Now The Weather,” in July, 1965 at La MaMa’s 122 Second Avenue location. Photographer unknown.

Harvey Milk (with Mari-Claire Charba, Marlene Fisher, Tom O’Horgan and others) on the set of “…And Now The Weather,” in July, 1965 at La MaMa’s 122 Second Avenue location. Photographer unknown.

Find of the Day: Billy Crystal in “Ubu” and “Arden of Faversham”

Ubu

Program for “Ubu” and “Arden of Faversham” (1970) [OBJ.1970.0046]

Here’s another one for the “famous people who got their start at La MaMa” files.

In 1970, Billy Crystal was a BFA student at New York University, having moved to the city to be with his future wife, Janice, after briefly attending Marshall University on a baseball scholarship. Before graduating and marrying that summer,  Crystal made his stage debut at La MaMa, performing in a double bill of shows directed by Andrei Serban, featuring Alfred Jarry’s “Ubu” and the Elizabethan “Arden of Haversham.”

In this excerpt from a NY Post article about  Crystal’s popular one-man Broadway show, “700 Sundays,” Crystal describes his first encounter with critic Clive Barnes: “I played a toy soldier with a tall red hat and rouge circles on my cheeks. Andrei [Serban] put me in a garbage can. I was a broken toy. And as I was sitting in that garbage can, the audience began to come in, and I saw Clive Barnes. And I thought, ‘Oh, no — this is not how we should meet.’”

In the program at left, take a look at Crystal’s first-ever theatrical billing (alongside a roster of La MaMa-stars), as Bill Crystal.

–Suzanne Lipkin

Find of the Day: Patti Smith in Jackie Curtis’s “Femme Fatale”

FemmeFatale

Flyer for “Femme Fatale” (1970) [OBJ.1970.0086]

Here in the La MaMa archives, you never know what might pop out at the end of the day and surprise you. Today it was Patti Smith’s name in the cast list of the 1970 production “Femme Fatale: The Three Faces of Gloria.” Described in the flyer to the left as “A Religious Entertainment,” the show was created by Jackie Curtis, a drag artist who first performed in Tom Eyen’s “Miss Nefertiti Regrets” at La MaMa in 1965. The show combined familiar religious and movie scenes with “bizarre contemporary situations,” according to the rave review published in the newspaper Show Business by Frank Lee Wilde. Smith, of course, later went on to pen the controversial lyrics “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” in her cover of Van Morrison’s song “Gloria.” Could there be a connection between these Glorias?

In this six-minute clip of the production, Jackie and Patti can be seen in a chaotic scene leading up to the song “Kissing Asses for the Man I Love.”

–Suzanne Lipkin