Holly Hughes

at Beacon Street Gallery & Theatre, April 9 and 10

Holly Hughes sat all folded up in a big comfortable chair, sighed, and described her lover’s breasts as “tits, headlights, knockers.”

This got a laugh, of course. It was bawdy, and so incorrect. Certainly Hughes could have gone on in this vein, appropriating male language about desire and the female body, and the laughs would have continued. Lesbian politics would certainly have been served. But in her new show, Sins of Omission, Hughes dared something else entirely.

She told us she once asked her mother if fire was liquid or gas. She said her mother told her it was a force of nature. And then, as if caressing her lover, Hughes said about her, “That’s what she is, she’s a force of nature–she’s something that happened to me.”

Love, apparently, has happened to Hughes. It has infused her work with new depth and courage. Love has given her something to fight for. And because she’s a lesbian, and because even the simplest act–kissing good-bye on a street corner, for example–can cause the outside world to crash in on her romantic idyll, love has also crystallized for Hughes what’s at stake.

Mercifully, love has also wholly banished the sophistry and flippancy she showcased in her last Chicago appearance, two years ago. Gone are the didactic posturings, the laundry lists of issues, the defensiveness. Instead of trying to prove that she’s not just another lesbian, this time Hughes seems not just content to be a member of the tribe but inspired by it. The result is a show of highly charged personal and political nuances and risks. “Shameless!” she tells us a voice hissed at her and her lover as they took that street-corner kiss. But Hughes confesses that they’re only good at acting shameless. She and her lover are still vulnerable to fear and danger.

A former painter, Hughes has written a trio of popular lesbian plays, Dress Suits for Hire, The Lady Dick, and The Well of Horniness (the latter got a local production during Bailiwick’s Pride series several years back). All are snappy, parodic theater pieces that garnered critical raves and box-office success at gay and lesbian theaters and festivals across the country.

But Hughes’s fame–or perhaps notoriety–really rests with World Without End, a mess of a performance script that was rejected for funding in 1990 by John Frohnmayer, then director of the National Endowment for the Arts, in spite of peer panel approval in the performance category. (Essentially the same script was accepted the same year by the NEA’s playwriting panel, which did fund her.) This controversy–which was pumped up by lawsuits, Hughes bashing on The 700 Club, protests, and the like–seems to have informed every Hughes performance since 1990. But compared to her previous appearance here, when she was prickly about the situation, Hughes is much more sanguine now.

She opens Sins of Omission with the NEA scandal, almost as if to get it out of the way. Taking on the persona of a talk-show host, she interviews “Miss Hughes” by addressing the audience, quizzing us about the legitimacy and meaning of her work and liberally sprinkling in quotes from her detractors. A spin doctor for Ronald Reagan said her work “threatens national security.” Frohnmayer himself is quoted: “Holly Hughes is a lesbian. Her work is very much of that genre.” An unnamed lesbian critic referred to her as “a mock lesbian, cashing in on the gay and lesbian theater craze.”

This piece, in many ways the weakest of the four monologues in Sins of Omission, nonetheless establishes several technical innovations Hughes has made. Unlike previous work, in which she seemed to feel compelled to use the theatrical space, Hughes remained confidently in that big chair, simply sharing her stories. This time her voice and face revealed rather than concealed emotions. And there were few exclamation marks in this show–a laugh here, a flip of the wrist there–which represents a new maturity.

Hughes’s strength has always been her remarkable use of language, and she did not disappoint with Sins of Omission. The writing is as rich and pointed as ever, but it’s also poignant and wise. The erotic landscape described in the second monologue, a dark memory about her parents, breathes fresh air into worn-out images of food and weather. Over and over again Hughes startles with images turned on their heads, with the unexpected punch line, the raw but gentle kernel of some awful or beautiful truth.

The third piece–a hallucinatory recollection of monotonous day shifts as a waitress at a Red Lobster–is hilarious, but it’s more than that too. Hughes anthropomorphizes the Red Lobster kitchen, which starts to seem a deadly arsenal, a dangerous depot for her angst. She debates the death sentence with the lobsters in the tank not just to amuse herself but to keep her personal demons at bay. “I dream someday of becoming something beautiful and dangerous,” she says. “I want to be a gun.”

The final monologue is her piece de resistance, however. Here she manages romance without sentimentality, rage without hyperbole, vulnerability without self-pity, a call to arms without polemics. In this piece about her lover, about coming out, about lesbian invisibility, about the limitations of their lives, Hughes simply shines.

“We’re so far out of the closet,” she says, describing herself and her lover kissing at a kitschy Polynesian bar where no one seems to realize they’re both women. “But people can’t see us. And I think, then OK, we’re safe. But we’re not safe.” This is heartbreaking. But it’s true.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dona Ann McAdams.