Inside the beltway bubble of local theater making, it’s easy to forget how many U.S. citizens are indifferent, if not antipathetic, to live theater. Mainly they express this by voting with their butts, which they keep on sofas or in sports arenas—which is all fine and good; it’s the American cultural marketplace. Every now and again, though, some demagogic pols, fanning culture-war flames, rile up anti-art animus, as happened back in the 1990s when four performance artists had their National Endowment for the Arts grants ungranted. They banded together and sued, went on to notoriety as the NEA Four, and became heroes of resistance to public-funding philistinism.
Two of these four are being recognized in a pair of aptly chosen performance pieces presented by Rainbow Theatre Project: Tim Miller and Holly Hughes. The first, Miller’s nakedly autobiographical 1992 solo piece My Queer Body, was performed—I’m tempted to say inhabited—by Paul Alan to an enthusiastically appreciative audience last Sunday at Bier Baron Tavern. Artistic Producing Director H. Lee Gabel persisted for six months to get the rights and told the crowd in his introduction that this was “the first time Tim Miller has given permission for someone else to do his words.”
Hughes’ 1996 solo piece Clit Notes will be performed Sunday, April 24th, at the same venue in a gender swap by John Moletress. Taken together, these two performance pieces are a fascinating blast from the past. Moreover, in the wake of recent anti-LGBT legislation, they are a timely reminder that radical queer art still has plenty to say to power.
Alan entered amiably wearing eye liner, hot pink suspenders, a gray tank top, and black stovepipe jeans—and he began interacting with audience members right off. He was obviously keeping to Miller’s script, which he sometimes read from, but the effect of his nimbly gender-fluid performance, mixed with situational ad libs, seemed more like spontaneous improv.
In Miller’s words
My Queer Body is my most seminal piece. And not just because the show starts with me as a queer sperm getting ready to be ejaculated out of my dad’s dick—though that’s clearly a tip-off. In My Queer Body I wanted to weave a funny, scary, and emotional gay boy’s alternative creation myth, an odyssey of swimming upstream as a queer spermlet at conception to my first boy-kiss to the ecstatic visions of homo-sex transforming the state!
Miller’s performance of that first bit, a fantasia on his conception, can be viewed on online, and Alan’s rendering was every bit as funny if even more playful.
Miller goes on to explain,
This show explores the stories that our bodies carry and how systemic homophobia challenges our deepest selves. The performance traces a journey through the most intimate pleasures and pains of being in our bodies in these difficult and juicy times. In My Queer Body we have the sweetness of an early love, a date with a boy at the La Brea Tar Pits, and a frightening peek into a volcano and the mortal fears of the time. I wanted the show to reveal some of the secrets that are held in my heart and head and butt and breath. The show ends up with a rousing call to claim ecstasy and imagine a fabulous queer future complete with a black lesbian president.
Throughout there are historically specific echoes of an era when HIV/AIDS was taking countless gay men’s lives and “Silence = Death.” Miller and his first boyfriend attend a demo protesting California Governor Pete Wilson’s veto of a gay rights bill. Miller fondly remembers watching Zefferelli’s lush Romeo and Juliet, which features the tush of an early crush. Yet My Queer Body seems to play in a timeless place of erotic awakening and coming of age. And when, prior to enacting ecstatically Miller’s first time having sex, Alan strips down to bright orange briefs anachronistically branded Diesel, we are reminded that that was not only then; it’s now all over and over again.
Connor Hogan’s direction astutely shaped a site-specific performance that allowed Alan an engaging freedom that kept the whole performance fresh, and Alan’s open rapport with the audience was its own reward. Though he was not off book, his body owned the story. Alan was at once himself and Tim Miller. And had Miller been there in the flesh, I’m guessing he’d be glad he came.
Running Time: 80 minutes, with no intermission.
Clit Notes, written by Holly Hughes and performed by John Moltress, will be presented April 24, 2016, by Rainbow Theatre Project performing at Bier Baron Tavernv – 1523 22nd Street NW, in Washington, DC. Tickets are available online.
This is the queer birth section from the beginning of Tim Miller‘s solo performance piece My Queer Body.