Thursday, March 20, 2014

Up Your Ass and Around the Corner: Staging Valerie Solanas

A little over a week ago, I staged two performances of Up Your Ass, the long-lost play Valerie Solanas wrote in 1965 and gave to Andy Warhol hoping he would produce it.When Warhol lost the manuscript, Solanas showed up at the Factory and shot him through the chest. Obviously, the play was found. I directed and performed it using a bootleg PDF copied from the original mimeograph and called it a “staged reading” to avoid lawsuits.

Valerie Solanas

For what it’s worth, the brief summary I wrote for the university website read like this: “A wisecracking lesbian hustler working the streets of 1960s New York encounters a multitude of colorful passers-by in this fast-paced comedy by Valerie Solanas, author of the infamous radical feminist SCUM Manifesto and would-be assassin of Andy Warhol.” It’s accurate enough a description, if not a little hyped up. You, too, can access this bootleg copy if you get your Google game right, and I’d recommend it.

I’ll probably never know what exactly drew enough people to “Up Your Ass” to run me out of programs and litter the floor with approximately ten million sticky hand wrappers (in an attempt at integrating the audience into the show, I encouraged them to fidget as much as possible by handing out sticky hands—ordered in bulk from a creepy wholesale website, of course). I can, however, speculate, and what good is a blog if you can’t use it as a public platform through which to project suppressed desires onto your classmates?

Simply put, I think it’s Solanas. I think people need actual access to the Scary Feminism that gets frantically gesticulated about by Men’s Rights Activists and cautious gender studies majors alike. If you identify as a feminist and someone warns you not to be “one of those bra burners,” what good does that do you if you’ve never encountered an actual bona fide gun-totin’, man-hatin’ feminist? If you don’t identify as such I might ask the same question. Shouldn’t an actual Dangerous Feminist deliver the bad news here?

Bongi, the play’s main character and a loose analogue of Solanas—who also did sex work on the streets of New York, on and off—here is arguing with Russell, the play’s embodiment of pure male chauvinism. The quarrel itself foreshadows the famous-in-some-circles opening lines to the SCUM Manifesto (SCUM standing for “Society for Cutting Up Men,” though as far as I know, people are still debating whether Solanas actually coined the acronym or if some smartass found it appropriate and spread the rumor from there):

Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex.

There we go. Every fear, every suspicion that feminism might be about something more sinister than “women’s equality”—all confirmed in one luscious sentence. Valerie Solanas, ladies and gentlemen: the embodiment of the dreaded Straw Feminist, the One of Us that no feminist these days wants to claim as Real. Never mind that Ti-Grace Atkinson called her the “first outstanding champion of women’s rights” and Florynce Kennedy, while defending her in court after shooting Warhol, deemed her “one of the most important spokeswomen of the feminist movement.” That's not to say anyone needs to claim her as a role model; what I mean is that she received legitimate praise from two of the most important feminist figures of the 60s and 70s and perhaps we should examine her influence with a little more nuance.

Up Your Ass runs itself in circles referencing pop culture and then re-referencing its own jokes. The characters are fantastically unbelievable except for Bongi, whose semiautobiographical nature still feels fantastic at points. Some other points of absurdity: Ginger, a perfect handmaiden of the patriarchy, plans to eat a turd for dinner to impress her male guests. Solanas shows wildly unsatisfying sex onstage (we moved it into the wings), depicts drag queens in a light tottering dangerously close to offensive, inserts a lengthy “Creative Homemaking” lesson into the play at random and culminates the action in a mother strangling her six-year-old son because he’s “bugging the hell out of her.”

Beneath all the raucousness are pockets of something-like-truth that sting a little more than one might expect from a play so outlandishly ridiculous. One drag queen accuses another of “jumping right in the sack after a piece of pussy;” the other responds bitterly with “I am a piece of pussy.” Ginger says, “I adore neurosis; it’s so creative,” explaining why the men she deals with all day in her profession are “really fascinating” compared to Bongi’s johns. That doesn’t come long before this gem:

These are things that still get said. Solanas laid it out in 1965. Since then laws have changed, certainly, but I’m inclined to think not much else has, and I’ve yet to encounter a text that addresses the rotten core of gendered discourses so frankly, so bleakly, while still wrenching a laugh out of its audience.

There’s been an upswing in Solanas scholarship of late; most notably, Breanne Fahs, who has been writing on Solanas for years, is releasing a hotly anticipated biography in April. Solanas has never been fully absent from filmmusicother music or consumer goods either. But something in me is dissatisfied with the depth usually afforded her. 

I get it: if you want to convince someone of feminism’s worthiness as a cause, casually mentioning Solanas as a member of the Famous Feminist Pantheon isn’t going to help you. Fine. So what happens when we acknowledge Solanas’s existence on her own terms, without trying to promote The Cause? As a writer? An actress? When my cast and crew acknowledged her as a playwright, people showed up. They might have been skeptical or event resentful of the play, but they filled a theater space during week-before-finals-week. It might've been the sticky hands, but I think it was the several-ton elephant in the feminist theory room: Solanas.

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