Friday, February 24, 2023

Hudes or Change: purple prose and nostalgia

This is how Jenn/Kathy's death is described in Hudes' "Daphne's Dive":
DAPHNE: Do you know what self-immolation means? (Silence) Do you know what self-immolation means?
(Daphne pulls a newspaper clipping from her purse)
UPenn did a little write-up.

RUBY: Get that paper out of my face. Speak.

DAPHNE: Tuesday, at the LOVE statue. Jenn poured gasoline over her head, lit a match, and started dancing. A few people tried to douse the flames but she went quickly.
I found the NYTimes review of Daphne's Dive, and it is wild that the accurate description of Jenn/Kathy's death is described as "a little contrived."
Not all that takes place in “Daphne’s Dive” strikes me as entirely credible — or free of a sprinkling of sentimentality. The fate of Jenn, for example, who dies in spectacular circumstances midway through the play, seems a little contrived. Acosta’s rise from businessman to powerful local politician, on the other hand, is more persuasive.
I appreciated that Hudes didn't simply portray Chang as a hero, and the most decent characters in the play argue against it:
PABLO: Jenn was not a hero. 
RUBY: Yes she was. 
PABLO: No, Ruby 
DAPHNE: She was sick/She needed treatment. 
RUBY: Unrelated/Unrelated.

I wanted to see what else Quiara Alegría Hudes had to say about Kathy Chang so I listened to all ten hours of her memoir "My Broken Language." Hudes does the reading herself and I really wished she didn't because she reads in a relentlessly chirpy manner, like her audience is in kindergarten. 

Also that woman loves a metaphor. I would estimate that she averages at least one metaphor per page. 

She also loves lyrical bordering on cringe like "the wind caressed my shoulder blade." Her lyricism for anything to do with learning or playing music is so extreme that I set the audio playback rate to 2.0 times normal speed once she got to Yale to study music. 

Hudes turned the memoir into a play and in the New Yorker review Vinson Cunningham said:

...there are places where the Author’s voice goes mawkish and her prose crosses that often untraceable line between lyricism and purpleness. 

Yes, exactly. Thank you.

And then there is Hudes' religiosity. In her 2018 musings on the theater Hudes says:
I struggle increasingly with the atheist white male aesthetics I inherit. These include:
  1. That love is dead, romance is transactional, and sex is not a source of pleasure but a race to the bottom.
  2. That children hate their parents and vice versa. The suggestion of familial love implies idiocy on the part of the playwright.
  3. That wealth is either neutral or a hardship to the wealthy.
  4. Regarding God: You’re kidding, right?
  5. Joy is sentimental, harmony a falsehood. Harming others is the single human truth.
  6. Genius is a male attribute. Intuition is a female attribute.
I was in agreement with five out of six items on her struggle list. But I take exception to "Regarding God: You're kidding, right?"

I'm not sure what she wants. There is a currently-playing musical, HADESTOWN, full of Ancient Greek gods. And ANGELS IN AMERICA not only contains plenty of discussions about faith and religion, especially Mormonism and Judaism, but there's even a big scene where Louis, with the help of the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, says Kaddish for Roy Cohn.

But her view of religion is strongly informed by the fact that when she was a teenager her mother held spirit-possession rituals in their West Philadelphia twin row home that included animal sacrifice. She mentions a chicken, a frog and a goat. And I thought my mother was a religious fanatic. At least she never sacrificed a goat. As far as I know.

Hudes seems to think her mother is a goddess of wisdom, so she's hardly going to accuse her of being a fanatic. She at least acknowledges that it's a strange dichotomy, that her very literate, social-welfare agency employed mother spent her free time performing rituals involving animal sacrifice.

I hated Hudes portraying Gloria Steinem as an elitist racist, because in the 1980s she had a meeting with bigwigs at the social services agency her mother worked for, and her mother wasn't invited to the meeting. If you know anything about Steinem's life you know that not only has she always been very conscious of making connections with non-white feminists, she is every bit as respectful of Native American traditions as Hudes' mother with her love of the bloody Sundance ceremony

One thing I absolutely do love about the book is her trashing The Bell Curve. But on the other hand, Hudes seems to indulge in her own ethnic essentialism, similar to that in The Bell Curve, throughout the book, using "white" and "whiteness" as insults. Her father is Jewish, but she's more likely to describe him as "white" than as Jewish, I assume because insulting someone by calling them a Jew is considered far more bigoted than insulting someone by calling them white. 

Hudes spends Chapter 22 mocking her father and his wife Sharon as right-wing reactionary libertarians who hate each other and consider city people "rats." Now I'm sympathetic, I despise right-wing reactionary libertarians. But elsewhere in the narrative, Hudes acknowledges how deeply homophobic her Puerto Rican relatives are, so much so that one of her relatives ran away to New York City to die alone on a mattress rather than tell any family members he had AIDS. Surely Hudes must consider homophobia as bad as being a right-wing reactionary libertarian, but she never mocks her homophobic Puerto Rican relatives. 

And because Hudes hates Sharon so much, and because Sharon is white, Hudes decides that you can't be both white and Puerto Rican, you have to pick a side. This might not seem so remarkable coming from the teenager she was when she chose this simple-minded way to be in the world, but then she writes:
They left me two options that night in the living room. Be white or be Puerto Rican. Their rules, they forced my hand. Fine. My heels dug further into North Philly. My soul took a side that lasts to this day.
Really? You're not seventeen anymore. Sharon no longer has power over you. Hell, you're being paid to talk shit about Sharon now. You went to Yale, you're in your forties, white people come to see your plays produced in the Anglophone theater tradition. 

Hudes is no blood relation to Sharon, so her whiteness comes from her Jewish father. But Hudes doesn't express it as Puerto Rican versus Jewish.

Maybe Hudes publicizes this attitude as a way to shore up her career brand as a specifically Latina playwright. I hope so, because the alternative, that she sincerely believes in such an extreme dichotomy, is depressing. In the 2020 census more than half of all Puerto Ricans living outside Puerto Rico identified as white. Even more living in Puerto Rico identify as white.

But while her lyricism and essentialism alienated me, Hudes' litany of place names made me nostalgic for Philadelphia and its suburbs. She mentions the Philadelphia Art Museum, Giovanni's Room, the Schuykill Expressway, the Italian Market, Six Flags Great Adventure and the Cherry Hill Mall. And the rail line between 30th Street and Malvern, which coincidentally I had taken my one and only time this past October to go to a funeral for an artist friend who had lived out there. Hudes took the same line to see her father after her parents split up.

She even describes participating in a Quaker meeting at the Quaker headquarters on 15th Street and Cherry Street, or as my ex-husband called it, when he was working in their cafeteria, "The Quaker Kremlin." I never participated in a Quaker meeting myself but the building was familiar to me since my daughter was eligible for Quaker daycare at a steep discount while my ex was working there. Our paths criss-crossed, Hudes and mine, all over the Delaware Valley, and not just because of Kathy Chang.

And by the way, unless I missed it, and I don't think I did, even at 2.0 speed, the memoir does not include a discussion of Kathy Chang. This is strange because Hudes says she knew her:
 Some of those initial molecules, for me, in this play was someone I knew growing up named Kathy Change—I knew her as Kathy Chang, she changed her name later—who was a kind of activist and performance artist and I admired her. Many people didn’t like her and thought she was a nuisance. There was something about her that fascinated me—how did she do what she did? She went out to these Philadelphia street corners and danced and waved these flags with her ideals, and I thought that was fascinating. 
I mean, Hudes goes into fine detail about the lives, body types, drug problems and eating habits of dozens of relatives, so you'd think she could spare a few paragraphs in her memoir for someone she admired. 

But her inclusion in the play is certainly a coup for Chang, on top of decades of inspiring less-established artists. Her Wiki page notes:
  • A memorial is held in her honor every year on October 22 at the peace sign sculpture on the University of Pennsylvania campus where Kathy died. The memorial attracts artists, activists and performers, among others.[10]
  • Percussionist/composer Kevin Norton wrote a suite for Kathy Change entitled Change Dance (Troubled Energy) in 2001 and was released late in 2001/early 2002 on the Barking Hoop label.[11][12]
  • Industrial metal band Fear Factory wrote the song "Slave Labor" referring to her suicide; it was included in the 2004 album Archetype.
  • Drummer Tyshawn Sorey composed and performed "For Kathy Change," a quintet in her honor, in March 2011.[13]
  • Soomi Kim wrote and performed in the biographical play "Chang(e)", directed by Suzi Takahashi, which premiered in 2013 and has had multiple performances since then,[14][15] including New York City[16] and Portland, Oregon.[17]
  • Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes's 2016 play "Daphne's Dive," based in Philadelphia, features a character closely resembling Kathy Change.[18][19] The play is dedicated "in memory: Kathy Chang(e)."[20]
  • Actor (and writer) Shin-Fei Chen portrays "Peace Activist Kathy Change" in Andrew Repasky McElhinney’s 2019 film Casual Encounters: Philadelphia True Crime Confessions. Her scenes were shot on 35mm Kodak film, September 2018 in West Philadelphia.
She's mentioned in a poem published in The New Yorker, in 2008; the subject of an article in The Drama Review in 2011; and the subject of a collage from 2004 at my alma mater (did not graduate) the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The very biographical song about Chang recorded by Todd Young and His Rock Band, is called "Kathy Change."

I especially understand why Asian women artists are inspired by Chang and want to perform her as a character. The Western theater tradition has not been exactly over-stuffed by highly individualized Asian woman characters. Whatever else you can say about Chang, she was highly individualized.