I was lucky enough to catch the La MaMa production of Contradict This! A Birthday Funeral for Heroes. In it, the Bearded Ladies Cabaret “celebrated” the second centennial of Walt Whitman. Fitting the exultant demand to contradict, it was as much a birthday party as a funeral. It also being Pride and the 50th anniversary of Stonewall a time to reflect. The performance, with original music performed by “misfit” artists and queers costumed accordingly was a gaudy spectacle. We were challenged to account for Whitman’s racism and classicism, alongside acknowledging from how ahead of his time he was in asserting his sexuality, however disguised. Is it anachronistic and unfair to bring contemporary values to historical, and historically progressive, works? Or is this exactly what we need to do, especially now, when our founding liberal, social principles seem to be everywhere at stake and up for discussion?
In “What the Constitution Means to Me,” Heidi Schreck struggles with the same question. She brings urgent, 21st century values to our history, heroes, and founding documents. Re-living her own past, she re-enacts a school debate on how the US Constitution was created by wealthy and entitled white men with no concern for women in particular, or anyone unlike themselves. She wonders still, now an adult, how to live and how to challenge what that history promised.
La MaMa was the perfect venue for the diverse group of contemporary revelers from “Contradict This!” to try and integrate the reality of the past with the perspective of the present. It’s an uncomfortable journey for all–though some more than others. I knew Ellen Stewart, the founder of La Mama Theater Club, who was an edgy, avant-garde African American producer who broke artistic and ethnic boundaries. Seeing this current production, I got nostalgic as I looked around where history had been made, remembering performers hanging from the rafters in the 70’s.
I had also connected with Ellen, who passed away in 2011, at the Spoleto Festival in Umbria where she had a home and continued to incubate experimental and challenging works for La MaMa, her baby. She had a remarkable career–in the 1950s, before La MaMa, she worked as a fashion designer for Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman, Lord & Taylor, and Henri Bendel–and she offers a model for how performance can challenge the status quo.
I am pained by the failures to find a balance to honor everyone. We keep grappling with the significant contributions that were made in the arts that also, often unwittingly, obliterated the perspectives and contributions of others. There are no easy answers, but I feel that it is critical to preserve and tell our histories as painful as they may be. Ellen Stewart struck that skillful balance, highlighting known and unknown performers of poorly represented backgrounds and many different ethnicities, while establishing a space to intervene and challenge the (mostly) white avant-garde.