All the while, Hughes' adversaries portrayed her as an "indecent" artist for her humorously confrontational monologues on lesbianism and womanhood in a society dominated by straight white males. She and her three fellow litigants were canonized by defenders of free speech, and demonized by such moral crusaders as North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms. You'd think it would have been good box office for Hughes. But Helms, whose idea of art is a velvet painting of dogs playing poker, wasn't the only person who wanted his (tax) money back.
"I was positioned by Jesse Helms and others as an obscene artist, but when people came to see me they were disappointed that I wasn't obscene," she laments. "What's a lesbian to do?"
What this lesbian is doing is touring with a new solo show, "Preaching to the Perverted." To her delight, it is driving a few faint-hearted viewers out of the theater.
"I'm a provocative artist; I have no trouble owning up to that," she says. "With 'Preaching to the Perverted' I don't mean just to provide some laughs -- although there are some laughs in there -- and so I've have had some walkouts here and there, which makes me think I'm doing my job."
Hughes will do her job at Centennial Hall on Friday and Saturday, March 24 and 25. It's part of an intensive weekend of performance art that UApresents has assembled under the title Voices from the Margins. Also calling out from the sidelines will be actor-musician Rinde Eckert, audacious Latina comedian Marga Gomez and hip-hop monologist Danny Hoch.
Hughes says that her show, which opened last September in San Francisco and has since traveled to such places as North Carolina -- Helms country -- has been well-received aside from the expected walkouts. "Contrary to the spin you hear in the media, a lot of people enjoy work that raises questions, that is controversial and provocative; people want more than just easy entertainment," she maintains.
"Easy entertainment" isn't the first description that would come to mind for a show revolving around a Supreme Court hearing, as does "Preaching to the Perverted."
"I think of myself as a stringer reviewing the Supreme Court as a piece of theater," says Hughes. "Is this a show trial? What does it show? What doesn't it show? What kind of seating can you expect?
"I had no idea what a Supreme Court hearing was like. And I was so appalled when I realized that most of the justices don't read the briefs. If they're going to be unprepared, why should a lawyer bother to prepare an argument? Why not approach it as a conceptual performance piece?"
Her attorneys wouldn't dare try that, but this happens to be Hughes' line of work. So "Preaching to the Perverted" is her way of "outing" the Supreme Court, as well as a forum for discussing some of the issues revolving around the case, including what majority rule means to minority expression.
"Lesbians and gays and people of color and other minorities only got access to their rights because they got hall passes from the majority," she says. "And there are only so many hall passes that are being given out. 'Sorry, you disabled people can't use the restroom because the gays have all the hall passes today.' "
According to Hughes, the NEA is now skirting the whole obscenity controversy by not giving tax-supported "hall passes" to any individual artists anymore.
"Scum like me will not be getting your 35 cents annually, so that's good news, Tucson!" she says. "The NEA is kind of an eviscerated organization now. I think it's basically an empty building with three temp workers and a fax machine. They have about $3.75 to give out all year, and that doesn't even leave them enough to go out for a latte."
More seriously, Hughes points out that one of the goals of public funding for the arts was not just to support artists but to make art accessible to people who can't afford the commercial venues. "Now it's harder for emerging artists to get a foot in the door, or even to find the door, and it's harder for audiences to get in the door because ticket prices are higher," she says. "And when ticket prices get higher, the work gets focused toward a different socioeconomic situation." Meaning $80 to see a revival of Kiss Me, Kate on Broadway.
What Hughes does takes a bit more courage than having pretend-gangsters sing "Brush Up Your Shakespeare." "I like to go to that place in my work where I'm a bit scared and uncertain and I don't really know if I'm stepping off into thin air, and if the audience is going to go with me," she says. "I like to feel those moments where I'm not really sure what's going to happen next."
It's sort of like taking a case to the Supreme Court.
UApresents' Voices from the Margins hosts performances by Rinde Eckert at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Thursday, March 23; Holly Hughes at 7 p.m. Friday and 9:30 p.m. Saturday, March 24 and 25; Marga Gomez at 9:30 p.m. Friday and 7 p.m. Saturday, March 24 and 25: and Danny Hoch at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Sunday, March 26. All performances are at UA Centennial Hall, 1020 E. University Blvd., just east of Park Avenue. Tickets cost $25 per performance, with discounts available for students, UApresents season subscribers and UA employees. For information, call 621-3341.
Hughes, Eckert and Gomez also participate in a free public symposium, "Unlocking the Creative Process," at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 22, in Room 102 of the Center for English as a Second Language, 1100 E. North Campus Drive, just north of Centennial Hall.