Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Bad Girl with Rubber Duck

by Zinta Aistars

With her highly controversial play, "Preaching to the Perverted," Holly Hughes returns to her alma mater to show off her ducks. Published in the Kalamazoo College alumni magazine, LuxEsto, Spring 2001.

Holly Hughes '77 stands in the door of the restaurant and slowly pulls off one leopard-skin glove, then the other.

It is the Saturday morning of her one performance of Preaching to the Perverted at the Nelda K. Balch Playhouse. Her hands shake slightly, her cropped blonde-streaked hair is a little disheveled, and she looks tired.

She is small. Surprisingly small. Hardly more than five feet. Standing there in the door with other customers bustling past and around her, Hughes appears to be someone who could use an arm of protection around her slight shoulders.

Protection for Holly Hughes? The spitfire? The wild woman? The controversial and much maligned Holly Hughes of the infamous NEA Four?

Playwright and performance artist, Hughes has been making her audiences squirm mercilessly with the itch of political, sexual, and intellectual discomfort for the past twelve years. In 1990, the National Endowment for the Arts revoked grants awarded to Hughes and three other artists: John Fleck, Karen Finley, and Tim Miller, citing "obscene and homoerotic content" in their work. All four sued the United States government to have their grants reinstated. Through several appeals, they won and won again. But in 1998, the Supreme Court overturned the verdict and once again revoked the grants, citing the "standards of decency" clause. It was the Supreme Court hearing that inspired her one-woman play, Preaching to the Perverted.

Holly Hughes orders breakfast: "Eddie's Special," a mess of scrambled eggs, sausage links, Belgian waffles. With hot sauce. The petite performance artist has an appetite.

"It's always great to come back to Kalamazoo College," she says, sipping coffee. She politely asks in a soft-spoken voice for the cream the waitress has forgotten. "Although by now I feel New York is home. I live in one apartment in Washington Heights with my partner, but I have another one in the East Village. But what I would really like, my fantasy, is to be an old lady living in a doublewide in upstate New York with fifty-five cats and dogs."

And there it is. That Holly Hughes laugh. She throws her head back and chortles, a resoundingly delicious and witchy cackle, and immediately heads turn. The waitress appears instantly with a bowl full of cream. The neighboring tables grow silent and lean in. The sun slants in a brighter ray of light through the window above.

Hughes has won many awards for her work. Her plays have garnered two Obie awards, a McKnight fellowship, grants from The Jerome Foundation and, yes, even several grants from the National Endowment of the Arts -- the year prior to the revoked grant, the same year as the revoked grant, and in the years following the revoked grant. She has had numerous works published by Grove Press, and she won the Lambda Book award in 1999. Kalamazoo College awarded her the Alumni Distinguished Achievement Award in 1995. Hughes has been a visiting professor at the University of Colorado, Yale, the College of William and Mary, and she currently is teaching women's studies at Harvard University.

"You know what the secret of success is at Kalamazoo College?" Hughes says. "We are risk-takers. Most educational theatre is very conservative, but Kalamazoo dares. Giving me that alumni award in 1995 - that was taking a very real risk. That took guts. I am very honored and humbled by that."

When Hughes was a student at Kalamazoo College, she majored in art, mentored by such art professors as Marcia Wood and Bernard Palchick (now vice president of development) - "So you can address all letters of complaint to them," Hughes lets out another well-rounded cackle. "They were both a tremendous influence on me, even though I no longer paint - that's my contribution to society. But I switched to theatre after I came to New York."

Theatre is Hughes' enduring love. She was introduced to the medium by accident, she says, when she came to WOW, the Women's One World Café in 1983, where she had her debut performance with The Well of Horniness. The difference between traditional theatre and performance art, she explains, is that the latter is more experimental, quasi-anarchistic, rebellious. Which suits her perfectly.

"If you're really committed to change," Hughes says, "then you must be committed to being uncomfortable."

Yet breakfast concludes not with a political bang, not with rainbow flags flying, but with friendly chatter about the gardening Hughes enjoys at her remote cabin in upstate New York, about the stray animals she routinely rescues from the cold streets of Manhattan, and the books she reads, a list of nonfiction tomes exploring differing cultures and recounting travel stories measured in physical distance or inner journeys of spiritual exploration.

Breakfast over, Hughes slips back into her leopard-skin gloves, first one, then the other, and flies off to meet with a group of anxiously awaiting Kalamazoo College theatre students.


In her application to Kalamazoo College, submitted in 1972, the eighteen-year-old Hughes writes her answer to the question of what she believes is the most important issue facing our society today: Apathy towards important issues. Our form of government cannot successfully operate without citizen participation, because our government is based on the will of the people.

In the Nelda K. Balch Playhouse audience, all seats are filled. At least 40 people wait in the lobby, hoping for an empty seat, but there are none. Many more called for the free tickets, but were reluctantly turned away for lack of space.

The lights dim. A spotlight trains on the empty stage. A deep male voice announces loudly over a public announcement system: "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Tonight, we are pleased to present Holly Hughes, no doubt best known as one of the NEA Four, NEA Four, NEA Four, NEA Four…"

A gunshot cracks, emitting a sharp smelling spume of smoke, and Holly Hughes stands center stage, having fired a pistol into the air, silencing the PA system. It is silenced.

Then for 90 minutes Hughes recounts the experience of facing the Supreme Court in a losing battle. To represent the nine justices, she sets nine yellow rubber ducks on the edge of a cardboard box.

Hughes: "And I realize that trying to talk to the Supreme Court is like trying to talk to my Dad's Kiwanis Club about art. Don't try to tell them about how artist and audiences are taxpayers too, don't get smart. Because we are not talking about the use of tax money here, we are talking an allowance. And as long as you live in this house, young lady, you are going to be following the rules: in by midnight and no making a mess with that Karen Finley in the back yard. I told you if you kept playing with that nasty Bobby Mapplethorpe and that bull whip somebody'd get hurt, didn't I? Didn't I? So don't come crying to me, young lady. You are grounded. You are so grounded."

Hughes has the audience at full attention. Throwing flags across the stage, prancing about in a rainbow-colored wig, holding out a purple Teletubby, wrapping herself in a flag of rainbow stripes, and tossing glitter and confetti, Hughes mesmerizes more than shocks. And the play makes her main point: the NEA grants were not revoked on the merit of the art but only because of the works' inclusion of homoerotic material, suggesting that the public arena of a theatre stage is closed to gay American men and women.

Receiving less discussion or attention than the controversy of her performance art, and deserving as much or more, is the simple fact that Holly Hughes can write - artistically and powerfully. Somewhere along the legal path, this fact of artistic merit, perhaps the only point of real relevance, was lost.

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