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THEATER : She Who Laughs Last . . . : Holly Hughes' battles with National Endowment for the Arts are behind her now. She's also over her writer's block. Her latest trip explores family ties and, of course, her sexuality

August 22, 1993|JAN BRESLAUER | Jan Breslauer is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Holly Hughes sits at a back table in a yuppie-filled Santa Monica restaurant, poking distractedly at her baby-greens salad and risotto. The bistro is a far cry from the Naugahyde booths of the Red Lobster, the dank Midwestern chain eatery where she once waitressed--and which lives on in the wry noir tales of her acclaimed solo performance works.

Eloquent, sensual and wisecracking both onstage and off, Hughes is everything you always wanted in a controversial playwright/performance artist, and less. Although she is best known as one of the NEA Four--the artists who were denied National Endowment for the Arts grants in 1990 and recently won an out-of-court settlement in their related lawsuit against the government--she is neither the sensationalist nor the lesbian provocateur her attackers would have you believe.

She is, however, a woman who does it her way--and she's taken enough heat from both the right and the left over the years to prove it. This same individualism, though, has also won her a cadre of passionate fans.

"She's phenomenal," says Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner. "She's primarily a poet, which is about the highest praise I can give any writer. She has a distinctive voice--funny, smart, political and frequently exquisitely beautiful--and she's a great imagist. The logic is associative, but there's tremendous integrity and deep meaning there. When you encounter a mind like Holly Hughes, it wakes you up."

Hughes premieres "Clit Notes" Thursday at Highways in Santa Monica for a two-week run. Although it's her first new solo work since the NEA wars, she has been leaving her iconoclastic artistic mark on the American theater since long before Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and his followers went on the warpath against her, Tim Miller, Karen Finley and John Fleck.

Hughes is one of the key talents to have emerged from the lesbian theater movement that came together in New York's East Village during the early '80s. Her plays have been staged on college campuses and in theaters and galleries across the country, dissected in academic journals and dissertations and published by Grove Press.

Yet her work has never adhered to the aesthetic and political conventions of today's still male-dominated American stage. "The issue of narrative drama has become a battleground in theater today," says Kushner. "A number of women writers, including Holly, are producing work that refuses to be the next step in the development of Western narrative drama. There's a deeper inner logic that's more important than a traditional narrative, exploring the flow of consciousness and memory as the structuring principle."

But then, you'd expect adventurous work from a woman who has long been willing to stick her neck out for what she believes in. "I see her as a woman warrior," says video and performance artist Cheri Gaulke, who has also come under conservative fire in the last few years. "She delineated how the right's attack on homosexuality is really an attack on sexuality and how we (lesbians and gay men) embody that in the culture. Holly is Wonder Woman the way she makes the bullets bounce off with her wit and knife-sharp humor."

The promo literature for Hughes' Highways stint jokingly bills her as the "preeminent performance artist of Southeastern Michigan," and, glib as that caption may be, it suggests both the content and the droll humor of her solos.

The ostensible topic of the yarns she spins may be a scene as mundane as munching french fries with her mother in Michigan or the grind of a day job, but the underlying themes are always more vital. Similarly, her first-person perspective may be lesbian, but the appeal is broad and inclusive.

"Holly is ready to look into the sweat and bone of sex, emotion, love and family," says her longtime colleague Miller, with whom Hughes founded the National Fund for Lesbian and Gay Artists in 1991. "It rings true to gay men as well as lesbians because of its intensity and honesty. Holly's work confronts the death-sex vortex, exploring the life force amid loss and absurdity."

Autobiography also looms large in Hughes' solos--from "World Without End," seen in Los Angeles in 1989, to "Dead Meat," a work-in-progress staged here in 1990, to the new "Clit Notes."

Born in Saginaw, Mich., sometime, she quips, "during the reign of Eisenhower," Hughes early on defined herself in opposition to the Republicanism of the time and place. She eventually wound up as an art major at Kalamazoo College, after which she worked at Burger King, then for a couple of years at the Red Lobster, while she pursued her painting.

Both "World Without End" and "Clit Notes" draw on these early experiences. Yet where "World Without End" regales its audience with tales of Hughes' eccentric mother, "Clit Notes" focuses on Hughes' relationship with her father, who died a month ago after a long illness.

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