When Looking for Tiger Lily comes to the Talking Stick Festival, audiences will meet Carla Rossi, a drag clown in whiteface and a fright wig. But don’t be afraid: she’s a trickster, a storyteller, and the living, outsized embodiment of all the cultural collisions and identity crises two-spirit interdisciplinary artist Anthony Hudson has experienced. Carla is part coyote figure, part PowerPoint-wielding speaker, and much more.
“I want everyone to be as confused about who Carla is as I am confused about myself,” says Hudson with a laugh, speaking to the Straight over the phone from Portland, Oregon. “I always wanted to be a storyteller, standup comic, director, artist. Ultimately, Carla has allowed me to be all those things.”
But Hudson’s show is named for another character—the one the artist grew up watching on a VCR in small-town Kaiser, Oregon. It was the 1960 TV musical version of Peter Pan, in which the “Indians” in Neverland were blond and blue-eyed—led by Tiger Lily (Sondra Lee in a feathered headband). Audiences will see a clip from the film—the cringeworthy “Ugg-a-Wugg” musical number—in the projections in Hudson’s solo multimedia show.
“Those Indians looked like me. I didn’t realize that was wrong. I only realized it in high school,” explains the vivacious artist, who is half Indigenous and half German, inheriting fair features from his mother’s side. “I was afraid of growing up and going out into a world that wasn’t safe. So as a kid I identified with that a lot. But watching Peter Pan again as a teen, I thought, ‘Oh! This is messed up!’ But at same time I still loved it!
“I thought, ‘What do I do with this? This is a racist depiction, but also funny and something I love from my childhood.’ So it sort of became a preoccupation for another 10 years. Carla opens the show by coming out dancing to it.”
To understand where Hudson is coming from, you have to first journey back to the small town the artist grew up in. “There were a lot of evangelical Christians. I didn’t feel safe there,” Hudson says.
Hudson’s respite was spending time on the coast with relatives from the Siletz nation. And later, in high school Hudson started forming new communities.
“For me, it was growing up in this space and not really knowing how I identified,” explains Hudson, who wants to share the story now to help other young people in the same position. “I started the first gay-straight alliance in our school—and I was one of two out teenagers in our school. I got death threats over the phone; my home was egged almost nightly. But luckily I had a great support system. I was kind of an unapologetic queer kid. And I had my drama club: we had an amazing auditorium separate from the school, and I spent the entire last year in there.”
It wasn’t until Hudson had travelled to art school in Portland as a young adult that a coworker introduced Hudson to drag—and to Jinkx Monsoon, who went on to find fame as a finalist on Rupaul’s Drag Race. “I spent a good summer with her and was so inspired by what she was doing with drag,” says Hudson, who says the on-stage excursions started simply as “wild drunken nights”.
But something started happening whenever Hudson slathered on the white greasepaint that was sitting around the house. “I thought, ‘This could be a way to address race and gender and what I’ve experienced,’ ” Hudson explains. “The whiteface became a weird mask.…I was studying critical race theory in college. And I realized whiteface was a sort of an inversion of blackface and this could be a kind of reverse minstrel. I could use it to lampoon these structures in society, because I love playing her as a terrible person—but I thought transphobia and racism are terrible too. That’s when I realized she was my coyote character,” Hudson says, referring to the trickster of Hudson’s grandmother’s stories. “Portland is the whitest city in America, and it’s extremely gentrified; the nonwhite people are being pushed further and further out. I thought, ‘I can use this to push back at the city what it’s afraid to confront.’ ”
And all that’s led to Looking for Tiger Lily, a show that Hudson says uses “song, dance, drag, and video to put a queer spin on the ancestral tradition of storytelling”.
You can expect a lot of humour, as well—much of it influenced by Hudson’s father. He was a social worker, and as a kid Hudson would often watch him make presentations to mostly white colleagues about the welfare system, explaining why it was better for Indigenous children to stay in Indigenous-family homes. “He would tell his old dad jokes and would break down their resistance or any racism they had,” Hudson recalls. “As a kid, I had watched them surrender over to him; he made them laugh and they were ready to listen to him. Humour is great for teaching and a great coping mechanism, too. And I thought, for this show, ‘I’m going to change it into a PowerPoint, just with singing and dancing.’ ”
In Looking for Tiger Lily, the PowerPoint-style text projections include some provocative—and laugh-out-loud funny—play with the labels one should apply: “Indigenous” is “what we say on a grant form”; “American Indian” is “not to be confused with Indian American”.
“I love language and I’m a playwright as well as everything else, and language can be a wonderful thing and a horrible, violent thing,” Hudson says. “There’s something funny to me about Native identity, that it’s constantly changed.…Like ‘Indian’—only my family and I can say that; it’s what I grew up with. Around white people we say ‘Native’. I don’t know that there is correct language.”
Which brings us to the pronouns Hudson wants used in this article. After a lot of thinking, Hudson asks not to be called “they” but just to be referred to by the name Hudson—that is, when we’re not talking about Carla.
“See, even with pronouns I don’t know which ones to use. It’s almost impossible to talk about people without gender!” Hudson observes. “That’s all we all want, is to be free to live without these boxes, these categories. We’re using pronouns to put people in boxes. And my goal is to try to confuse these words.”
The Talking Stick Festival presents Looking for Tiger Lily at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre on Tuesday (February 26).