La MaMa’s Mama

The theater world and the East Village lost a true luminary last week in Ellen Stewart. She may have been 91, for like much of her early life, her exact date of birth was a bit of a mystery. But what’s clear is that she was an extraordinary individual who revolutionized modern theater and the performing arts, in general, through her pioneering La MaMa E.T.C. (Experimental Theatre Club).

Stewart’s is a true New York story. She arrived in the Big Apple in 1950, dreaming of becoming a fashion designer. She overcame prejudice, first working at tony Saks Fifth Avenue, then later on gritty E. Ninth St. at La MaMa’s first location. Incredulously, initially, the venue was even beset by police raids after it was mistaken for a brothel.

But there was no holding back Stewart and her passion for cultivating great theater. She started La MaMa to help two fledgling playwrights — one, her foster brother. Along the way, La MaMa aided the early careers of such stars as Sam Shepard, Harvey Keitel, Diane Lane, Robert De Niro, Philip Glass and Liz Swados.

Productions incubated Off Off Broadway at La MaMa have gone worldwide. Among her many honors, Stewart received a Tony for theatrical excellence, many OBIE’s and awards from governments around the globe.

She was a true original, an inspirational figure who forever enriched the arts and culture of Downtown Manhattan — and the world. May her beautiful spirit live on in the Fourth Arts Block that she helped found, in the many performers and playwrights who were mentored by her and flourished under her guidance and, of course, in La MaMa itself. For all Ellen Stewart did to nurture the arts, and for a life lived with purpose that made a difference, we say — Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!

Black must now lead

Much was made of new Schools Chancellor Cathie Black’s offhand birth control joke at last week’s School Overcrowding Task Force meeting, and for good reason. Lower Manhattan’s school-overcrowding crisis is no laughing matter.

That being said, we don’t wish to further elaborate on Black’s poor choice of words. Who hasn’t said something they regret?

It must not go unnoticed, however, that she showed up to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s task force meeting unprepared. That it was her second week on the job is no excuse. When someone starts at a new position it should be a no-brainer to bone up on all issues and concerns related to it. 

When we heard Black had never even seen Eric Greenleaf’s data on Lower Manhattan’s overcrowding crisis, we were surprised, and disappointed. Greenleaf has spent countless hours, voluntarily, preparing data on the neighborhood’s population boom and obvious need for more school seats. His projections show a need for 1,000 more seats by 2015.

Black said she had Greenleaf’s data — under a stack of papers on her desk.

While her performance at the meeting did not bode well, it’s still early. Her words and actions up to this date are not irreversible.

Lower Manhattan’s population boom is a great post-9/11 success story. Black must recognize this and mobilize D.O.E. to support this growth. For starters, she can press to ensure we see a new school built atop the Peck Slip Post Office.

We do commend the new chancellor for at least attending the task force’s meeting. Her predecessor declined numerous invitations from the task force during his tenure. We’ll give Black a pass, at this early juncture, on her words. Her actions in quickly addressing Lower Manhattan’s dire school situation will be what count.