The world is going to hell. Luckily, avant-garde feminist performance artists are going to save us—or at least provide the tools to throw a big ol’ DIY party to help usher in the resistance. This President’s Day, Feb. 20, venues across the United States as well as in Europe will be making some noise, using the tools of theatre, cabaret, dance, and performance art to decry the policies of the new Trump regime. And, because this is 2017, it all started with a Facebook post.
If you’ve ever taken a course in performance art, feminist performance, or avant-garde movements of the late 20th century, you’ll have heard of Holly Hughes. Hughes was famous one of the NEA Four, who during the height of the “culture wars” of the late 1980s and early ’90s were embattled in court over their proposed National Endowment for the Arts-funded projects. They won their Supreme Court case, but the fracas led to the NEA ceasing grants for individual artists.
Hughes had gotten her start at the famed Women’s One World (WOW) Cafe in the early 1980s, and over the course of her career has won everything from an Obie to a Guggenheim. Last November, like many Hughes was so distraught about Trump’s winning the election that she took to social media.
“About two weeks after the election, I posted an idle threat, as I am known to do on Facebook, saying I was going to do some sort of cabaret in Ann Arbor, where I live,” Hughes recalls. She called all “Bad Hombres and Nasty Women” to revolt on President’s Day, which she would rebrand as “Not My President’s Day.” Within minutes, people started liking her post and saying they wanted in. “By the next morning, there were so many people that wanted to interpret the idea on their own I was moaning, because I couldn’t add them quickly enough to the Facebook group,” Hughes says.
Fortunately others stepped up to the plate, including another giant of the feminist avant-garde movement, Lois Weaver of Split Britches, as well as social media whiz Mary Jo Watts. The “Bad Hombres and Nasty Women” Facebook group swelled to what is now almost 2,000 members, with more than 50 planned sites in the works.
Not My President events will be happening in both big cities and and smaller communities. At La MaMa in New York City, Karen Finley (also one of the NEA Four) is among the lineup in an event curated and hosted by Nicky Paraiso. Also in New York, Penny Arcade and Tammy Faye Starlite will read David Mamet’s The Anarchist at the WOW Cafe (directed by no less than Austin Pendleton). Meanwhile in Houston, Texas, the punk lesbian feminist band Girls in the Nose will join feminist performance groups Les Nez, MyDolls, and Kegels for Hegel in a rousing evening. Performance artist Raegan Truax represents in San Francisco, and in London the performance collective Pussy Patrons will screen their short film GRAB by PUSSY PATRONS.
Meanwhile, back in Ann Arbor, Mich., says Hughes, “We’re going to go with the theme of ‘Not my circus, not my clown, not my president.’” For that she’ll be bringing back a moment from the presidential debates, when Trump started yelling back at Hillary Clinton’s allegations regarding Russian influence on his campaign: “No puppet! No puppet! You’re the puppet!” Says Hughes, “I’m not sure where I’m going with that, but there’s something hilarious about this man screaming ‘No puppet!’ as if he’s a broken toy.”
Of course, using theatre to make a political statement isn’t new territory for Hughes or Weaver. Both artists were involved with creating World AIDS Day in 1988 and recognized ever since each Sept. 1. “You just find a date and do some kind of branding. I could just mark that day as a day of remembering people lost to HIV, and as demanding a cure, but people could interpret it however they wanted,” Hughes says. Similarly in this case, she says, “We are not trying to design the perfect vehicle for protest. That means that in some cases, there will be different titles or different versions of the logo; in some rural areas and the South the phrase “Not my president” is simply too confrontational.
For example, in an event Presbyterian College professor Laura Crary is organizing in upstate South Carolina, politically themed performance takes some political calcuation in itself. “Because our town is a former textile mill town, high poverty, with only 8,000 inhabitants, and the college is mostly upper-middle-class with fewer than 1,000 students, it’s a delicate balance we have to strike,” Crary says in an email. “By getting students involved, I am hoping to have a bit of reach with the expression.”
In addition to the events happening around the country and in Europe, the organizers also plan to livestream the evening, as well as document as much as they can, “so it doesn’t just happen the one day but it sticks around for a while,” says Weaver.
For her part, Weaver will be delivering a live Facebook address as part of her contribution for the night (she’s also performing at a venue in L.A.). For the livestream, Weaver will play her character Tammy WhyNot, a character born in the 1970s when Weaver was a part of Spiderwoman Theater.
“I always say Tammy started as a country & western singer and then turned into a lesbian performance artist,” Weaver says. “And now I’m trying to be an Internet sensation.” For President’s Day, Weaver’s live Facebook stream will be titled “Tammy’s Address to Her Nation.” As Weaver puts it, “Tammy is really keen on giving tips.”
Weaver remembers waking up in London on the morning after the Brexit and thinking, “Oh no! This means Trump could get in.” While so many of her colleagues were devastated, Weaver said to them, “Come on, y’all. We lived through Thatcher and we lived through Reagan, and we’re still here to talk about it. We worked with that friction and resisted with our work.”
For their “Not My President’s Day” takeover, Weaver says, “We created a DIY infrastructure that allows people to do the work they want to do and resist in the way we want to resist,. That felt good and felt like a celebration of where we’ve been together and a way of moving forward, out of the past.”