at HotHouse

December 5

WAC women don’t dilute their art. They go straight for the jugular, slicing through the how-do-you-do of polite discourse to say exactly what’s on their minds. Judging from WAC-a-Go-Go, their benefit performance Saturday night at HotHouse, WAC women are warriors–politically, artistically, and socially. The benefit was a virtual powwow, a gathering of people so determined to go out and fight for their beliefs it was invigorating, almost frightening.

WAC, an acronym for Women’s Action Coalition, is a highly charged political organization that started in New York shortly after the Anita Hill travesty. “Action” is the operative word here. WAC stages “intentionally visceral and confrontational” actions to combat homophobia, racism, religious prejudice, and violence against women. When their first Chicago meeting was held in September, more than 200 women attended. WAC-a-Go-Go (their first benefit) drew over 250 fired-up supporters, including two serious-looking suits sitting in the middle of the audience. It was quite an evening.

But, oh, it was long. Almost three and a half hours: 11 different performances, Paula Killen’s witty introductions for each one, and raffle drawings. It was powerful but almost too powerful. Three and a half hours of art that hits you over the head–even when it’s good art–can become incredibly bothersome.

The show began with a performance by the WAC Drum Corp., led by Judy Nielson, which plays at all WAC actions. There’s a lot of power in the drum’s rhythms, a power that has traditionally been reserved for men. The WAC Drum Corp. is all women–12 of them playing war rhythms on a variety of drums, from congo to snare. They’ve literally taken that power into their own hands, stolen it from men. Although it’s a surprisingly simple act, it’s thrilling to watch. It’s subversive, provocative, and empowering.

That’s what WAC-a-Go-Go was all about: women taking the means of communication into their own hands, using it to say what they want to say. What they talked about was nothing new in feminist circles: sex, various forms of discrimination, and politics. But the way they talked about sex in particular was hilariously funny. In her monologue Sandra Soczyk claimed she’d been informed in a vision that the Blessed Virgin Mary “enjoyed the company of women and was leaning in that direction” when God intervened. A man and woman, members of Queer Nation, reading from Casebook: Unusual Oral Sex Positions offered more nonstop laughs. Michele Cole’s monologue about the power she had over men by performing well in bed also had some good laughs, then provided a thought-provoking whammy at the end.

What’s interesting (and frustrating too) is that all these jokes are fueled by anger. Lots and lots of anger. In her drum solo/monologue, Nielson undercut her recitation of Abigail Adams’s request that her husband “remember the ladies” when writing the Constitution by also expressing her anger at her “African American friend . . . who said no” when Nielson asked that she perform with her. The anger was so pervasive that Rennie Sparks’s riveting monologue about how destructive sexually fueled anger can be was almost lost in a sea of aggression. Two gentle poems by a woman named Mo seemed a blip on a TV screen.

This anger is justifiable, but it’s also dangerous. As the saying goes, people can be blinded by anger. The most refreshing monologue was delivered at the end, by Jenny Magnus. In this evening of powerful voices her message was strong and comforting. Standing in the middle of the stage, balancing a bowl in one hand held above her shoulder, Magnus told a gentle story about her sister, who doesn’t speak. “Her words are in this bowl. She asked me to hold them up for her.” Magnus then tells how her sister’s dreams drove her to silence. In her silence she began to develop beautifully tender hands, so tender that they became a distraction to anyone in the same room. So she went to live alone.

In the meantime Magnus had dreams that led her toward her own place of power. She began working in small groups for women’s rights and began to think her sister was selfish for not speaking. She would yell at her, but all her sister could do was shed tears and offer her hands. Magnus refused her offer. Then one day she took her sister’s hands, and was surprised by the tremendous strength and warmth she received from them. “I realized there were more kinds of activism than I had thought,” she said. “So now I no longer shame my sister who doesn’t speak. I just go and see her once in a while.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Susan Anderson.