BY THE VILLAGE SUN | La MaMa ETC, which has been dedicated to presenting experimental works for more than 60 years, celebrated the reopening of its landmark home with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and tour of the refurbished building on Thurs., Feb. 9, at 74A E. Fourth St.
Andre De Shields, whose career was launched from the stages of the old La MaMa at 74A in the 1970s and ’80s, was the emcee of the event. Speakers’ remarks were constantly punctuated by the crowds’ mass ringing of small golden hand bells, in homage to the trademark gesture of the theater’s late founder, Ellen Stewart.
Afterward, the jubilant crowd that was gathered on the street outside flowed into the renovated building — led inside by a pair of festive lion dancers — to take a preview tour and visit its state-of-the-art performance spaces, plus greet longtime La MaMa artists and artists from the community.
New York City and New York State were instrumental in providing funding and support for the three-year, $24 million renovation. Actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein, a La MaMa alumnus, personally gave a grant of $250,000.
ADA accessible, with acoustically separated spaces and a building-wide digital network, the reimagined 74A facility “will change how we experience and think about art,” said Mia Yoo, the Tony Award-winning company’s artistic director. “These spaces will push the artists’ work beyond the four walls of the theater to radically expand access for people we couldn’t reach before,” Yoo said, “and they will fundamentally shift how La MaMa interacts with cultural organizations and communities locally and globally.”
Gone is the first-floor theater, where Stewart welcomed theatergoers with the tinkle of her signature bell for five decades. (One longtime La MaMama fan at the reopening, however, bemoaned the loss of the ground-floor stage and its “intensity.”) The legendary The Club space remains in a renewed setting, and a top-floor, brightly lit community space has been added. The reopening of these two spaces increases La MaMa’s performance venues to four stages, along with the Stewart and Downstairs theaters at The Annex, at 66 E. Fourth St., and the company’s Galleria and rehearsal space, at 47 Great Jones Street. The 74A building is mainly for workshops and also includes La MaMa’s offices.
La MaMa was founded in 1961 by the legendary Stewart — affectionately known as “Mama” — an African American woman who saw a need in her community and created a platform for marginalized voices. Stewart believed that space is vital to the creative process, a commitment that remains at the heart of La MaMa’s mission. Today, it’s the only one of the city’s main Off Off Broadway theaters from the 1960s that’s still thriving.
In 1967, when Stewart purchased 74A E. Fourth St., the building, which dates to 1873, had no roof, flooring or back wall. Yet, through sheer will and determination, she created what became the capitol of Off Off Broadway. De Shields was one of the first artists Stewart took into her embrace as one of her “babies,” performing in productions at La MaMa. Elsewhere, of course, he is recognized for his iconic performances in “The Wiz,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “The Full Monty,” “Play On” and “Hadestown,” for which he received a Tony Award.
For the renovation, basically, the entire, formerly ramshackle building was gutted, after which a firm interior steel support framework was added, and the insides then rebuilt. The project architects were Beyer, Blinder, and Belle Architects and Planners, LLP.
The first full performance in the newly renovated 74A was “The Hip Hopera of 5P1N0K10,” by Tarish Pipkins a.k.a. Jeghetto, from Feb. 16 to 19. With marionettes and an original score by Jeghetto, the Hop Hopera is an Afrofuturist parable about a robot that longs to be a real boy.
La MaMa’s 61st season is being dubbed “Remake A World.” The digital tools embedded in the renovated space allow artists to collaborate remotely and audiences worldwide to participate in La MaMa’s programming.
A recipient of the 2018 Regional Theater Tony Award, more than 30 Obie Awards and dozens of Drama Desk, Bessie Awards and Villager Awards (The Villager newspaper used to give theater awards), La MaMa has been a creative home for thousands of artists and resident companies, many of whom have made lasting contributions to the arts, including — in addition to De Shields and Fierstein — Blue Man Group, Bette Midler, Ed Bullins, Ping Chong, Jackie Curtis, Adrienne Kennedy, Diane Lane, Playhouse of the Ridiculous, Tom Eyen, Pan Asian Rep, Spiderwoman Theater, Tadeusz Kantor, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, Mabou Mines, Meredith Monk, Peter Brook, David and Amy Sedaris, Julie Taymor, Kazuo Ohno, Tom O’Horgan and Andy Warhol.
La MaMa’s vision of nurturing new artists and new work from all nations, cultures, races and identities remains as strong today as it was when Ellen Stewart first opened the doors in 1961.