Portland’s pre-eminent “Drag Queen Clown” Carla Rossi is not who you think she is.
Well, she is Portland’s pre-eminent “Drag Queen Clown,”—but the man who plays that role, Anthony Hudson, wants audiences of his latest show Looking for Tiger Lily to know he’s not actually as white as his greasepaint. Three-eighths Native American, with a fuller-blooded dad and more Native-looking brothers, Hudson has spent his share of time on “the Res,” attending powwows and Native American school.
So how dare his alter-ego Carla Rossi don a brown-grocery-bag “Indian vest,” surround herself with the Dollymops, a gaggle of white girls wearing war-paint clownface and pink and blue yarn braids, and open the show singing “What Makes The Red Man Red?” Is this cultural reclamation, or mockery? Quickly ditching his drag persona and re-emerging as Anthony, Hudson goes on to explain how his three-eighths Native sometimes struggles with whatever proportions of him are gay, trans, and campy. Between songs, he spends this show dissecting his conflicting cultural impulses, with a wry fondness for all sides.
But throughout, the Clown Queen proves irrepressible! In several scenes, she looms large on the big screen behind him, interrupting his thoughtful musings with brash generalizations. White people will do that sometimes, Hudson seems to demonstrate—even if they’re you.
Here comes the big academic “I” word: intersectionality. And to illustrate it, cue Hudson’s childhood favorite movie, Peter Pan, the 1955 NBC special. In this blasphemic gem, Hudson points out, we see the titular role of a young fairy boy played (quite gaily) by a woman, Mary Martin, while Sondra Lee (by appearance a white woman, who will much later pen a memoir titled I’ve Slept With Everybody) mugs as Indian chief Tiger Lily. Tiger Lily and Pan swear in a musical number that they’ll be “blood brothers,” earning simultaneously a bad rap for Native American stereotyping, and a devoted lesbian following.
As gender-queer as it is white-appropriative, Peter Pan is a film Hudson still strives to justify his love for, exalting it to a canon of queer classics like Hedwig and Rocky Horror. WHY did a young Hudson learn by heart the musical number “Ugg-a-wug,” which parodies Native American languages as funny-sounding gibberish? Who knows. Why does a young Hedwig enjoy singing to himself with his head in the oven?
Looking for Tiger Lily, in true revue form, presents various numbers and a series of soliloquies on a theme. In a rendition of Madonna’s “American Life” Hudson takes the emotional, legato chorus and uncannily perfect verse (“I tried to be a boy, I tried to be a girl…”) and Carla busts into the song’s inexplicable and awkward “rap break” (perhaps the only well-known rap that mentions drinking a soy latte). In Cher’s “Half Breed,” Hudson’s raspy, quiet delivery of the line “Give her a feather; she’s a Cherokee” hits emotional rock-bottom.
In monologue, and in dialogue with Carla, Hudson challenges white assumptions that all conversations with Indians will be earthy and profound; he laughs at his school’s Thanksgiving pageant (He played a pilgrim!); he revels in the revelation that Native tradition acknowledges multiple sexualities and genders, and he recalls a moment from his past when he “didn’t want to be an Indian.” All the while, he wields a live performance of “Ugg-a-wug” like Chekhov’s gun. Will he or won’t he deploy it?
Of course, even as Hudson plays all sides, a new chapter is currently being written in Native American Studies. I speak, of course, of Standing Rock. For those of us following the news, Standing Rock makes a cameo in any Native-related discourse. While Looking for Tiger Lily was conceived well before the DAPL protests and (after this weekend’s two-night-only stint) may be reprised in seasons to come, it begs for any new editions to somehow acknowledge the historic standoff. Monologuist Mike Daisey just faced a similar challenge, adapting his touring piece Trumped Up “an hour before the show” to include breaking news about Donald Trump’s taxes.
…But maybe it’s too much right now, and the task of humanizing is made all the harder amid impulses to either lionize or demonize those who are currently making history.
“What makes a person?” chirps Carla Rossi.
“White people need to unpack and align and quantify and define…” says Hudson.
“There’s no difference between you and a rock,” declares Hudson’s grandmother.