All-American Grrrl

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Flag-barer Holly Hughes.
Flag-barer Holly Hughes.
The secret most sound bites don't reveal about controversial performance artist Holly Hughes? She's a star-spangled hoot: a motormouth pixie with a trademark guffaw, who reminds you of that girlfriend from summer camp who kept you in helpless stitches all night with her pranks and smutty mouth.

Hughes is an all-American original. Her solo performances -- multilayered, subtle, and political -- are informed by an irrepressible comic energy, couched as the observations of an unpretentious, wisecracking femme from Saginaw, Michigan, who is as familiar with Kiwanis dinners as with the New York avant garde.

Her new solo show, Preaching to the Perverted, is a rueful but funny exposé of her legal battles as one of the notorious "NEA Four" -- the four artists targeted by Senator Jesse Helms in his tirade against the National Endowment for the Arts in 1990. In the piece, her mind wandering from Salisbury steak dinners to Jesse Helms to the Teletubbies, Hughes takes the audience to the final battle: the bizarre 1998 Supreme Court hearing that diminished the autonomy of the NEA.

"People who see the show are surprised it has so much humor," Hughes says. "But it's a huge relief to be able to write about it at last." It must be. Over the past decade, Hughes has practically been a poster child for the ravages of the right wing's attacks on artistic free expression. Though plucky, she has the hollow-eyed and slight demeanor of a war orphan.

The culture wars were just heating up when Hughes was last in Cleveland, wearing a sizzling red dress and, legs spread, talking about her mother's pussy (for the 1990 Performance Art festival). She followed up her act with a spirited post-show conversation with the poet Essex Hemphill about Mapplethorpe, Serrano, and the necessity for supporting and funding controversial art.

Less than a month later, she'd moved from interested activist to ground zero of the arts-funding firestorm. She and artists Karen Finley, John Fleck, and Tim Miller had their National Endowment for the Arts performance grants yanked for content -- much of it queer and feminist -- deemed objectionable to the masses. For nine years, during the ensuing legal battles, she struggled to live, teach, write, and perform under the intense spotlight.

"No publicity is bad publicity," Hughes mumbles to herself in Preaching, a mantra that rings hollow under the blare of the bullhorn. Since 1990, she has been publicly called "a threat to national security" and labeled a pedophile.

But her wry humor endures, much of it manifested in her love of wordplay: She titled her solo anthology Clit Notes, "so people would have to say the word out loud in libraries and bookstores."

Preaching to the Perverted is yet another punny gloss, referring to artists' fears that they are ineffectual missionaries, rarely heard except by the already converted, or so-called "perverts."

The NEA Four battle, she says, became a model for right-wingers "to attack all kinds of programs, in social services -- not just the arts. Find a controversial element, and use it to bring down the whole thing."

Preaching to the Perverted finally came together, she says, in the spring of 1998 -- as she sat in despair on the steps of the Supreme Court after their hearing.

"I was feeling so politically ineffective," she says. "There we were, eight years of struggle, and only Scalia and Souter had even bothered reading the briefs: The rest were political hacks, phoning it in." It was then she realized she had to talk about that performance before the Supremes, not as politics, but as theater. -- Linda Eisenstein

Preaching to the Perverted, a solo work by Holly Hughes, Thursday through Sunday, October 14-17, at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday shows at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets $15 general admission; $12 students/seniors. Limited seating; reservations requested. 216-631-2727.

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