by Laurel McLaughlin
This introduction is already a failure. But are we okay with that? I don’t want to assume for you; but for my part, I’ve never been more okay with it. If introductions are supposed to “set the tone,” contextualize, or provide grounding of some kind, then forget it. The following conversation, composed over emails (too many from me), with the generous, wickedly witty, fierce wielder-of-pen-and-paper Anthony Hudson/Carla Rossi tunes its own tone, historicizes its own voice, and levitates to grounds of its own imagination—only to twist all of our expectations in the best, most necessary way.
Laurel McLaughlin (LM): Carla Rossi and Anthony Hudson will be performing Looking for Tiger Lily (Solo) in TBA19 in collaboration with Risk/Reward. The TBA festival is known for the way in which it brings together local and international performers. So, before we get into the work, could you share your thoughts about performing in the same place where you make work?
Anthony Hudson/Carla Rossi (AH/CR): I love touring and am tickled I’ve gotten to take my work to Dartmouth, New York, Canada, Australia, and more places on the docket, but I’m a Portland clown through and through. I’m from here (OK, “true” Portland natives would say I’m from Keizer, but I’d ask them what Tribe they’re from). My Kalapuya and Chinook ancestors were here thousands of years before that. I’m tethered to this place in a way, and Carla’s tethered to Portland’s whiteness. It powers her and gives her something to talk about, like fuel. If Portland is a lighthouse of white privilege and fragility, she’s the beacon burning within.
LM: You have a history of performing in the Portland community, could you share what’s been formative for you and perhaps share impressions from previous TBAs in which you’ve partaken?
AH/CR: TBA19 is wild for me in how full circle it is as I approach ten years as Carla. I’ve wanted to be a TBA artist since I started going to shows as a PNCA freshman in 2009. One of Carla’s first big nights out was at TBA’s Art Party at The Works in 2010, back in the Washington High School days—Carla jumped on stage (much to my present-day self’s horror) during Light Asylum’s set and, luckily, got asked to stay. From 2012 to 2017, I was ecstatic to collaborate with my bestie Pepper Pepper as their video maker (videatrix?) for Critical Mascara, and to open Critical 2013 on a ladder lipsyncing a Bette Davis monologue from All About Eve. Carla got to send off Critical in 2017 with a tribute to Valerie Solanas, Aileen Wuornos, Divine, and Satanic witchcraft. Now I’m bringing my international solo show back to Portland for the first time—and for the last time—since its workshop in 2016, back to where this whole story began at TBA.
LM: Turning to Carla Rossi more closely, she identifies as a “drag clown,” a Coyote trickster—which refers to both a lineage of Native theater and innovation within the drag form. Could you share more about this moniker of identification?
AH/CR: I’ve never done drag to “put on” woman or femininity, whatever that may mean. Yeah, sure, I auditioned for RuPaul’s Drag Race once, years ago, and that experience showed me how little interest I have in “female impersonation,” even if I see a power in some performers’ ability to channel and challenge that illusion. Carla’s a clown because I’m not trying to be a woman. I’m trying to explode gender and negotiate my own gender confusion with her. For her, she absolutely is a woman, she’s trying to be a woman, but I like to think of her as a shapeless form, a blob, a Mr. Potato Head of Lies. I think of that scene in The Man Who Fell to Earth when David Bowie takes off all his human drag—clothes, hair, eyebrows, pupils—and comes out as a naked alien slate. That’s like Carla. She’s a trickster spirit—my trickster spirit—who’s made itself up to look like a clown, and, hey, clowns and tricksters happen to have remarkably similar objectives: saying one thing while doing the opposite. She’s spent all of human history trying to become something special, something important, and in today’s world in Portland, Oregon, she thinks that special something is a famous white woman.
LM: Keeping with Carla then, you said she is a “persona, body of work, and occupation.” So often within art or festival contexts, the drag form is reduced only to critique; but given the storytelling that you engage as/with Carla, in your writings, and your Queer Horror screening series, there’s so much more to this work. Could you talk about the vitality in Looking for Tiger Lily (Solo)?
AH/CR: I regret ever calling Carla a persona, and I’m trying to find other words for what she is. I read an interview with Taylor Mac where the interview brought up that word—persona—Taylor responded that “‘persona’ is a misnomer,” and that, instead of a persona, drag is what happens when Taylor’s insides explode outside. I couldn’t have found better words for it. I fought the idea that Carla was in any way or shape me, or something more than a character, for years. Looking for Tiger Lily (Solo) has flashes of this—she opens the show, then I take over, then she haunts me here and there and challenges me and my qualifications as author/performer (after all, she’s “the famous one. Nobody even knows who you are!”). It’s taken Tiger Lily for me to realize that Carla, like Taylor’s drag, is my ultimate form—my ultimate gender expression. She’s when I feel the most me—who or whatever that is—and the most free and fearless. The play version of Looking for Tiger Lily, making its world premiere at Artists Repertory Theatre next May, is even more about this. It opens with Carla and I breaking up, and my whole sense of self and reality goes out the window as she takes the world by storm. In other works, like at Queer Horror, or my performances of Girl with a Cigarette at the Portland Art Museum, Carla becomes sort of a hybrid—I look like her, but I break character to flesh out the world of the performance and the commentary I can offer. The lines between us blur and we wax and wane from one to the other. Carla’s not smart, but I am, and sometimes I have to come through to add footnotes and context. And sometimes she has to come through to make a doody joke because I’ve been pontificating too long and the audience has fallen asleep.
LM: But let’s also talk about the critical edge to Looking for Tiger Lily (Solo)—because it’s present, but I wanted to acknowledge the complexity of it with you. For instance, the work lampoons the 1960s production of Peter Pan, which features Sondra Lee, a white woman, as the “Indian Princess” Tiger Lily, which you said you saw as a child, alongside a host of other harmful cultural references. It’s layered. So, how do you compose this critique? What’s your process?
AH/CR: This show started as a dare—I was afraid to perform without the clown paint, and I also enjoyed a degree of anonymity. I’m fairly private, or I try to be as private as a public person can, and not many people knew anything about Anthony until Looking for Tiger Lily (Solo). They only knew the clown. People would boo at cabarets when Carla would make jokes about being the ghost of white privilege or the whitest woman this side of Lake Oswego. So, I made this “coming out” show about myself and my family and what it meant to grow up looking white but also being Native and queer, and I knew I had to start with Mary Martin’s Peter Pan, my four-year-old favorite. That was the root of it all—the “Indians” in that show are played by white people who looked more like my Mom and me than my Dad and my Grandma and Aunties and cousins. I loved it as a kid, but how did that image impact my own sense of self, conflated furthermore by how people project whiteness onto me? In setting off in this story about confronting one of my favorite stories, and wondering what to do with it—and redface—I knew I had to confront the rest of the American canon of redface. Actual Native representation is so limited in pop culture, and most Americans don’t even know Natives are still alive—instead they think of Westerns, Disney’s Pocahontas, Cher’s Half-Breed (another childhood favorite), Coachella headdresses, and cigar store statues, and that history hasn’t just invented an American myth of the Indian, it’s invented a whole Bizzaro-universe funhouse mirror that constantly hangs over the self-image of so many Native Americans. It’s all a rich and imaginary and fucked-up history, and in Looking for Tiger Lily (Solo) it becomes a candy store for Carla and me to draw from.
LM: Keeping with this rich critique, your work also particularly features whiteness—in all of its privileged glory. Carla seems to portray, as Jenna Lechner wrote, the “awfulness” of it. It’s awful in its subjugation of difference. And yet, it’s awe-full, as in, charmed by itself. How do Carla and Anthony negotiate this?
AH/CR: Carla’s line that always used to get me in trouble (and sometimes still does) with particularly fragile audiences is, “I’m the ghost of white privilege, and that’s hilarious because white privilege will never die.” Carla isn’t white, and she isn’t human, but she wants to be. She’s taken “white” literally and paints herself like a clown. In Looking for Tiger Lily (solo), I explore being Native from the perspective of also being half white, and feeling less-than because I grew up without traditions, and because people walking down the street encounter me and address me as a white man, because of visuality—because we’re hunting animals who see another and have to identify it—regardless of what I may actually be. And in Looking for Tiger Lily (Solo), I talk about wishing it could be that simple, and wanting to be one thing: wanting to be a pretty white girl like Lana Del Rey, wanting to be a vaguely-ethnicized white woman like Cher, wanting to be a worldly, pan-cultural (in collection at least) white woman like Madonna. White is treated as default in American society, and anyone who isn’t, or who is more than, constantly measures themselves against this default. That’s double consciousness. It’s not just Carla’s aspiration—sometimes it’s mine. She’s my way of lampooning whiteness and its awfulness, the violence and the dehumanization that it’s caused, but she’s also my way of holding myself (and my place in it) accountable. After all, my brothers are much darker than I am, and they grew up and still live on the Rez, and I’m living a very different life. The way I look has absolutely opened doors for me, I’m sure of it. So, I take that as a responsibility to act as a sleeper agent, a Manchurian Candidate, an infiltrator, whenever I can. I hear the terrible things white people say when they think “the others” aren’t around, and all that gets transmuted into the coal I shovel into Carla’s mouth.
LM: This awfulness is “charming” because we recognize it. In Carla’s critique, does she offer a way to address it? Call out? Combat?
AH/CR: Everything she says, even when she’s “sincere” (it’s an important character note that she’s incapable of sincerity, and everything she says is a fraud, an act), is meant to point to its own failure, to expose the cracks in whiteness, myths of racial purity, and essential, fixed identities. When we opened Queer Horror’s screening of Candyman, she told Kimber Shade “I’m not a racist! I’m colorblind. I listened to En Vogue once.” A thinking audience should hear the satire in that line, even if Carla’s convinced herself that she believes it. She’s kind of like Trump in that respect. Every word he says should be a parody of itself, but for some reason people believe in it and empower it and inflict violence at its call. But critical thinking is dying in the age of Russian bots and headline journalism, and some people bizarrely take Trump’s words as fact. I guess he’s also not in drag or in clown makeup, which benefits my aims if not Carla’s—drag tells people, or at least it should, that what we’re seeing and the tools we’ve been taught to see with are lies and illusions and constructions, so that definitely helps drive the point home.
LM: Doubling back to a point from earlier, Looking for Tiger Lily (Solo) recounts your childhood experience—what is it like re-performing that formative time each time on the stage?
AH/CR: On one level, it’s bizarre. I’m casually obsessed with the idea of memory and the fact that no memories are truly real—they’re always reinventing and reconstituting themselves each time we “remember”—so I sometimes wonder how much of this show actually happened (it all did, right?). On another level, it’s also a tribute to the child and teenager I used to be, each very different people in their own respects, and I’m grateful for having this space to honor them; in many ways they’re braver and much more creative than this version of me will ever be. Back to the bizarre end, the play premiering at Artists Rep is a trickier beast—it’s semi-autobiographical, and a fiction taking place after this piece, but still set in the past—and in that version Carla starts as a clown doll belonging to young Anthony. As a kid I remember pretending to go to Neverland with my stuffed animals, but as I was writing and rehearsing and workshopping the play’s script, I found myself wondering if that actually was Carla’s origin—did I have a doll of her that eventually became a chunk of my psyche?—even though I knew it wasn’t. I’ve spent a decade writing and charting this history of Carla’s existence throughout time, and sometimes I wonder if she is actually a trickster spirit who’s tethered herself to me. Being an artist is always going to be weird because we create new and alternate realities for the world. Whenever it gets autobiographical things get even weirder because we’re creating new and alternate realities for ourselves, new and alternate versions of ourselves. I find myself losing track of these things as I get older—the play is also entirely about this—but I’m also less obsessed with keeping track, and more welcoming of not knowing, of doubting and questioning any idea of an origin or core or truth. It’s all a soup.
LM: Vital soup. You’ve discussed the difficulty of Looking for Tiger Lily (Solo)’s reception, as white progressive audiences can “share in a vulnerable moment and feel like they’re part of the solution—that they’re doing the work.” How else could you envision its reception? Perhaps as a practice?
AH/CR: I was feeling particularly salty the day I wrote that, that white audiences feel like they’re championing a cause by watching me talk about identity confusion. But to the flipside of that saltiness, to some extent they are. White, or straight, or otherwise “normative” people (or Baby Boomers) who come to this show—and do the work of listening—are challenging themselves to connect to someone else’s experiences. That’s challenging for any of us. That’s empathy. And empathy’s the only way we’re truly going to get out of the mess we’re in (it’s also what the Internet is teaching us to ignore, and what Trump is trying so hard to make us forget as he shocks-and-awes his way across all forms of government, policy, and ways of living). When I was first developing this show, I always worried over who could possibly connect with this piece. I worried you’d have to be a half-Native, half-white, from a small town, gay, gender confused, queer, fat kid obsessed with Peter Pan and Cher to get anything from this show. But when I first performed the workshop here as a preview at Risk/Reward and then as a premiere at the Hollywood Theatre, so many people told me I was telling their story: they were bi but they felt invisible; they were Mexican but they inherited their father or mother’s fairness like I did; they didn’t know how to identify, like I don’t. They all felt less-than. And so many of us feel less-than. American capitalism tells all of us—truly, all of us, except maybe a few campaign donors at Mar-a-Lago, and even then who knows—that we’re less-than. And I think acknowledging that less-than and questioning what motivates it and where it comes from—and what power is telling us we’re less—is a crucial step to building ourselves and each other back up.
LM: This last question might sound trite, but it’s totally real if we’re really thinking about transformative experiences: What is Carla’s wildest dream for TBA?
AH/CR: The year is 2050 and the earth feels like it’s on fire. Carla descends from the heavens on a giant hot dog blimp above the open-air stadium of TBA50, wearing a Follies-style headdress made entirely of hot dogs. Calliope music and a jolt of wailing electric guitar heralds her arrival as spotlights cut back and forth across the sky. She lifts a microphone to her lips while the water-scavenging iPeople of DisneyWorld™ scurry on the ground, anxiously awaiting a declaration that she’s come to save them, their future, and the earth. They drag dry tongues across chapped lips hoping for precious water to miraculously pour forth from her sausage zeppelin. Instead she takes a breath, instantly chokes on her own saliva, drops the mic, fumbles for it, and slides right off her blimp, hurtling breathlessly toward the ground and belly-flopping onto the barren soil with a SLAP and a clown horn. Her impact triggers the supervolcano at Yosemite, the sky erupts into flame, smoke suffocates the earth, and everything turns to char. Millions of years later blue skies break out of the clouds and a body of water below reflects this spectacular hue. Just off the shore, the hopeful squeak of a tiny beast tells us it’s found its food, and something green sprouts out of a clown-shaped crater.
Anthony Hudson (Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde) is a multidisciplinary artist, writer, performer, and filmmaker perhaps best known as Portland’s premier drag clown, Carla Rossi, an immortal trickster whose attempts at realness almost always result in fantastic failure. Together they host and program the bimonthly Queer Horror—the only exclusively LGBTQ horror screening series in the country—at the historic Hollywood Theatre. In 2018, Anthony was named a National Artist Fellow by the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, a Native Launchpad artist by the Western Arts Alliance, and an Individual Artist Fellow by the Oregon Arts Commission in 2019. Anthony’s first solo as Carla Rossi since 2014, Clown Down: Failed to Mount, will premiere at PNCA this November, and Anthony’s first professionally-produced theatrical play—a multi-actor version of Looking for Tiger Lily commissioned by Artists Repertory Theatre—will make its world premiere in May 2020.
Laurel McLaughlin is a writer and curator from Philadelphia, currently based in Portland, OR. She received degrees from Wake Forest University, The Courtauld Institute of Art, and Bryn Mawr College, and is currently a PhD Candidate in the History of Art at Bryn Mawr College. Her research examines the intersections of contemporary performance, new media, and migration. She has presented her research at the University of California, Berkeley, the College Art Association, New York, and the Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present, Hong Kong, among others. Additionally, she has held curatorial fellowships and research positions at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Slought Foundation, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the ICA Philadelphia.