By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
First published on the DI on February 9, 2001. Today’s re-publication sponsored by Freespace Dance.
NEW YORK — The woman who shot Andy Warhol fired another shot from the grave last night on the stage of P.S. 122, with the New York premiere, 36 years after she wrote it, of “Up Your Ass.” Valerie Solanas’s protean agit-prop treatise, which received its world premiere only last year from San Francisco’s George Coates Performance Works, would have heralded the arrival of a major political satirist in 1965 had it not been lost by Warhol and posterity for so long. Presented in 2001, however, and surprisingly, it is more than contemporary: Where much proto-feminist theater and dance these days, by artists young enough to be Solanas’s daughter or even granddaughter, is just so much screaming, Solanas delivers her punches with constant hits to the funny-bone as well, making any sexist accusations of “man-hater” secondary. “Up Your Ass,” while it doesn’t hold back, holds up first and foremost as powerful artistic expression. While much has been made about how this play predates Solanas’s “SCUM Manifesto,” a seminal feminist work, “Up Your Ass” stands on its own as a piece of sharp theater and a model, perhaps, for, not a kinder, gentler feminist didacticism, but one with artistic teeth to match its political bite.
The background, briefly: Solanas submitted her manuscript, one of only two copies, to Warhol in 1965, hoping he would produce it. Instead, he lost it and, so the legend goes, it was her rage over this treatment of her script that prompted her to shoot him. Warhol’s copy was discovered after both protagonists had died, in a box under some film lighting equipment, by Billy Name. “Up Your Ass” premiered January 12 of last year in San Francisco, a few blocks from the Tenderloin hotel where Solanas spent her last hours in 1988, dying of pneumonia.
“Up Your Ass,” which might be subtitled Bongi’s adventures in hetero-macho land, is the best kind of romp — one with bite; and the best kind of screed — one with satiric chops. Coates, a performance art institution in the City by the Bay, has certainly highlighted the humor by setting much of the script to karioki (with such rock & soul standards as “Let’s Get it On,” “Because the Night,” “Fever,” “Try a Little Tenderness,” and “White Rabbit” getting new lyrics. This last becomes the score for a belly dance, “Celebration Dance: A Dance for a Turd,” the turd being on the maenu of a dinner party not for a husband to eat, but for his supplicating wife, because, she explains, “everyone knows men have so much more respect for women who are good at eating up shit.”)
Did I say men? There’s only one male actor in Coates’s production, which is not to say there’s only one male character. A chameleon cast of eight women essay a variety of men, women, and everything in between. Two actresses, Tina Marie Murray and Annie Larson, even portray men who then get dressed up in drag as women, the ensuing hilarity including a mind-fucking moment in which Larson chides Murray for sitting down with her/his/her legs spread and all but revealing the family jewels. Their hilarious banter also offers this line from Larson: “I despise men. You know, what I’d like to be is a lesbian — than I could be the cake and eat it too.”
At the serious heart of “Up Your Ass” is Bongi Perez, a “queer” — in quotes because, as another reviewer has pointed out, Solanas was using this term proudly before it became the vogue among queers to do so, and when much of the Queer Nation was still in the closet — and a prostitute. Perez, some reviewers have said, is Solanas’s stand-in. “I’m so female, I’m subversive,” Sara Moore’s Bongi tells Mantra Plonsey’s Russell, a smooth hubby who brandishes a whole raw squid before singing “I don’t fuck, I make love,” to the tune of “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You.” But when Russell agrees to make an exception in Bongi’s case and have a quickie after she tempts him by opening her fly, she turns the tables on the man and fucks him in the butt.
Did you catch that? Note that I said, “after she tempts him.” I thought I was just describing what I saw, but really, all I saw was Moore open her fly. “Tempt” implies a motivation — and the motivation a man WOULD see after a woman opens her fly. A woman might see the motivation differently — perhaps, for instance, she was opening her fly to challenge him. I’m thinking of this — of the question of how open, even in supposedly post-feminist 2001, a male critic can truly be to receiving this work on its own terms, as opposed to through a defensive lens — after reading a review from the late San Francisco Examiner which was included in the press kit.
In his January 14, 2000 review, Robert Hurwitt described Bongi as “a dyspeptic lesbian hooker who delights in degrading her male johns and coming on to any woman who crosses her path. An androgynous figure in black leather jacket and trousers, she spends most of the evening casually injecting man-hating quips — many of them very funny — into the dialogue.”
Hmmm. Let’s break-down that paragraph, shall we?
In just about every line, Hurwitt describes Bongi not on her own terms, but in how her identity leaves her relating to males. She is a LESBIAN (unavailable to men for sex), a HOOKER (well, sort of available), who delights in degrading MALES WHO WANT TO PAY HER FOR SEX, and who COMES ON TO ANY WOMAN (not coming on to MEN.). To hear Hurwitt tell it, her dialogue consists almost entirely of MAN-HATING words.
Well, I beg to differ. Longtime DI readers will know that my man-hater radar is as sensitive as any Joe’s. And yet when I look at Bongi, at least as Moore’s portrayed her, I see a woman — yes, a woman, not an androgen — who, despite views she has acquired after what has obviously been some bitter experience, is still out there engaging with the world. She does accept a square woman’s invitation for dinner; she banters jocularly with an Ed Nortonesque typical hubba-hubba male; and she answers the square woman (Leanne Borghesi)’s belly dance with her own “dance of the seven towels,” plus her “modernistic fan dance. I use an electric fan.”
Indeed, if we look at the author for whom Bongi is a stand in, even as the work itself stands as a proof of her subversion, still, to try to get it out in the world, she was left relying on a man, Warhol.
Warhol is dead now, and so is Solanas. A man, Coates, certainly has brought her work back to life — enabled, of course, by a fine female cast! — but, based on the Examiner review, it seems to me that the male critical hegemony will still try to dismiss it. Hurwitt lead his article by dismissing “Up Your Ass” as “far from a masterpiece,” and saying it is “scarcely well written enough to be an interesting artifact of mid-’60s proto-feminism, let alone a work of art worth a man’s life.” He also said that “The Fuss is more than a little overdone.”
Again, I beg to differ.
I’m sure that male critics like Hurwitt would like nothing more than for “Up Your Ass” to have stayed under the nice glass case in the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, where Coates first saw it. Male critics, hell; the alumni magazine of Princeton University (edited by a woman) which arrived in my mailbox this week has, as its cover story, a fawning tribute to an alum who’s gone on to edit Maxim magazine, where a woman’s greatest value is her breasts.
Point? You may have come a long way, baby, but we as a society still have a long way to go before Eve is fully defined beyond being one form or another of Adam’s rib. Far from being a museum piece, Valerie Solanas’s “Up Your Ass” is a clarion call. NOT a clarion call for how to hate men and make it funny, but a call for how woman artists who want to continue Solanas’s fight — and folks, it ain’t over yet! — can do so with a form of high art that, because of the very humor which gives it mass appeal, has the power to truly subvert our male-centric system and move it closer to equality.
Solanas, finally, has come a long way, even if it took too long. Linda Moran, her sister, told last night’s audience after the curtain, “Valerie never had a memorial service. I think this is the most appropriate place to have the memorial. I consider this a memorial.”
“Up Your Ass” continues at P.S. 122 through February 25. The all-killer, no-filler cast also includes veteran comic Karen Ripley (in a hilarious Home-Ec send-up which concludes with a lesson in how-to-fuck-your-man), Chantel Lucier, Allison Hennessy, Sharon Boggs, and Eddy Falconer. For more info, please visit P.S. 122’s web site.
Special thanks to Rosa Mei for her valuable input on this article.