Theater archives

The Walk Across America for Mother Earth Would Make Ellen Stewart Smile


I can’t guarantee this, but I firmly believe that on Sunday afternoon, January 16, while Ellen Stewart’s body lay at rest in the Greenwich Village Funeral Home on Bleecker Street, her spirit was hovering in the air above the audience assembled in the big, cavernous space recently renamed for her at 66 East 4th Street, where the Talking Band, a frequent La MaMa visitor, was launching press performances of its latest venture, Taylor Mac’s The Walk Across America for Mother Earth. I didn’t glimpse our Mama’s ghost or hear her jewelry jangling, but I’m quite sure she was there, and was smiling. She always wanted to be where the excitement was, and laughing over a warm-hearted, silly, fecklessly extravagant play like The Walk Across America is more exciting any day than watching your friends weep over a cold coffin.

Less historical than faintly hysterical, Mac’s Walk chronicles events ostensibly occurring on a nine-month hike in 1992, when protesters anti-celebrated the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival here by trekking from New York to a spot in Nevada once granted to the Shoshone tribe and then seized back for use as a nuclear testing site, so that it stands as a symbol of both U.S. government tyranny and the arms race. The participants—treated by Mac in a loose, kiddie-cartoon-meets-commedia style, and decked out in costumes by Machine Dazzle (with makeup by Darrell Thorne) that suggest an explosion in a Day-Glo T-shirt factory—represent a panoply of ages, attitudes, and grindable axes. As they tromp toward their inevitable arrest, their repeated caroms off one another, under Paul Zimet’s easy but steadily moving direction, accumulate little force but provide much continuing diversion.

Mac himself inhabits, fetchingly, the central role of an indecisive youngster; others whose presence registers strongly are Daphne Gaines, Steven Rattazzi, and Talking Band co-founders Ellen Maddow (who also provided the appealing music) and Tina Shepard. The work’s brash feel, merging a cheerful, try-anything party atmosphere with a fiercely centered determination to encompass a serious subject, evokes the ’60s spirit of La MaMa’s adventurous beginnings almost more intensely than the radical slogans in which Mac’s text is saturated. If Ellen Stewart’s era has ended, no sweeter sign could be found of its readiness to begin again.