by Max Voltage, PQ Monthly
It was a dark and drizzling night, quintessential Portland fall, as I walked up to the Hollywood Theater. The marquee read Finding Tiger Lily, which made me feel proud, and a little jealous, too. S/he’s made it! Anthony Hudson, aka Carla Rossi, has been a queer creative force in Portland for almost a decade now. From their campy hilarities to scene-stealing comedic timing, Anthony continues to push their own creative edges, and their newest creation is no exception.
I got the chance to ask Anthony a few questions about their art and process pre-show, so I had a little context for the piece.
“As a kid I don’t think I realized how racist Peter Pan was. I loved it. Ugg-A-Wugg – the song that becomes the whole reason for my show – is still a favorite. Growing up without traditions and looking and passing white and living privileged – while my brothers lived on the Warm Springs Rez – I just didn’t know until I got older. And then as I got older I realized how little I knew and how skewed my sense of identity was. I felt split. (I still do.) And being queer and being kind of a weirdo sitting alone in my room doing whatever I wanted, I only had pop culture to turn to and occupy my time. When I heard “Half-Breed” by Cher I was blown away by it – finally, someone gets me! And though the song isn’t by a Native person, the lyrics rang so true with me that it became integral to my identity. Here I was left with huge gaps in my sense of identity, both sexually and racially, and I used pop culture to spackle over it all. I’m still interested in what all I took from it, and how much of it is still in me. That’s why I’m doing this show.”
As I walked into the lobby, it was packed and loud. The theater hadn’t opened it’s doors yet so everyone was milling about. It reminded me of the Portland of my youth, before I had queer community. I would come here, and to Cinema 21 and Clinton Street, to see indie movies and feel at home with the weirdos watching cult-classics.
The lobby was filled was excitement and anticipation, and tons of people I had never seen before. The doors opened and everyone streamed into the theater. As we found our seats, the Dolly Pops were working the crowd, in clown makeup, with yarn wigs, single feathers and bow and arrows, drinking whiskey. This is what it looks like when clowns perform racism; campy satire playing at the edge of pain and absurdity.
“This show is brought to you by the Spirit Mountain Casino,” and we were off into a whirl of storytelling and songs, dancing Land O’Lakes butters, grant-writing jokes and cardboard waves! The whole thing was a bit of a brilliant blur, which I guess I shouldn’t admit to as a reviewer. There wasn’t enough time to write down everything I thought was clever so I just tried to sit back and take it in. Every moment was packed with complexity and honesty; I immediately wished I had gone the night before, too.
The storytelling, about Anthony’s relationship with these problematic pieces of art and representation, set the numbers up beautifully, adding layers and complexity to songs like “Colors of the Wind” and “Just Around the Riverbend.” I had never really listened to the lyrics of “Half-Breed” before, but watching Anthony fully embody the struggle of duality, singing with tender sadness the line, “both sides were against me since the day I was born” gave me literal goosebumps.
As a connoisseur of drag, I especially appreciated the way Anthony used their drag persona Carla Rossi to exorcise our collective racist demons. As Anthony says,
“…she’s very much a Coyote sort of presence. Coyote and other indigenous tricksters almost always go about things selfishly only to inadvertently help humanity. I don’t know that Carla helps humanity as a whole, but she’s certainly provided me with an outlet for emulating and externalizing everything I want to critique in our world, and I would be lost without her.”
Rarely have I seen potentially incendiary topics addressed with such creative and artistic skill. For example, about-about half-way through the show, Anthony’s off on a quest to his Grandmother’s house, to ask her what it means to be Native American. She appears in the video screen in the form of Grandmother Willow from Disney’s Pocahontas. As she’s espousing cliches, the dialog turns Star Wars-esque ending with a line about “using the force.” We laugh at this bizarre pop-culture mashup, and suddenly we’re laughing at ourselves and that we just went with it ’cause on some level maybe we expected his Native grandma to be a talking tree? But really she’s just a person who asks Anthony if he’s still putting on plays. Subverting stereotypes with a gentle teasing mirror makes for excellent activist-art.
Finding Tiger Lily doesn’t offer any easy answers, just a multiplicity of truths gleaned from personal experience and exploration. It’s courageous, honest and funny as fuck. This artist showed us the most awkward photos of their youth. Literally. Used laughter as a bridge to greater understanding and healing. Turned themselves inside out and let us watch. I’m looking forward to seeing this piece again, and whatever fabulous art Anthony and Carla dream up next.