SAN FRANCISCO—A gorgeous, henna-haired, six-foot-tall Cosmo girl in a miniskirt wanders onto the stage with a pair of chopsticks, which she uses to pick up, then reject, various pieces of street shit. “Say, Miss, did you, by any chance, see a turd anywhere around here?” she asks a girl panhandler in a beret and black raver pants. After much byplay about the color of the particular turd, where it might be, and the revelation that it’s for dinner, the panhandler asks if she’s serving the turd to her two male guests.
COSMO GIRL: You’re impossible! I assure you I have no intention, whatsoever, of serving my guests a turd. The turd’s for me. Everybody knows that men have much more respect for women who are good at lapping up shit. Saaay, would you like to join us for dinner?
PANHANDLER: I don’t know—depends on what else is on the menu.
This is Valerie Solanas’s play Up Your Ass. The play Andy Warhol lost, the artistic assault for which Solanas shot him. Written in 1965 (before her SCUM Manifesto) in Berkeley and New York, it’s a hilarious, dirty-minded send-up of heterosexuality on the eve of the sexual revolution and the sex and gender wars to come. It stars Bongi Perez, a Solanas alter ego, wiseass hooker, lesbian, and panhandler par excellence who describes herself as “so female, I’m subversive.” Bongi plies the streets Valerie knew so well, hustling tricks for meals but putting out as little as possible, hobnobbing with the local drag queens (Valerie was a close friend of Candy Darling), jousting with bourgeois wives and career gals who prostrate themselves before men (“When I get on my knees, I get paid”), and cruising any “lowdown, funky broads” that come her way.
On January 12, 32 years after it was lost, Up Your Ass is getting its world premiere in a San Francisco theater only blocks from the Tenderloin SRO where Solanas died alone in 1988. The production, by George Coates Performance Works, features an all-woman cast—unknowns except for pioneering lesbian comedian Karen Ripley—playing male, female, and drag roles. And they’re letting it rip. (“It’s the horniest show in town,” breathed one happy patron heavily after a recent preview.) Even before its opening, the show has picked up fans from the gender-bending scene, raves from drag kings and trannies, and beaucoup ink from the alternative press, and has inspired sweaty nervousness from the male-het arm of the avant-garde. The show has put a whiff of the Barbary Coast back into a town all-too-spiffed-up recently for the dotcom crowd. Playing its role, The San Francisco Chronicle refused to run an ad for the show unless the double s in Ass was changed to something else. Director George Coates went with Up Your A$$.
Solanas is quite a departure for Coates, who is known for avant–garde operas driven by technological wizardry and abstruse texts. His pieces have been performed around the world from the Brooklyn Academy of Music to L.A., Tokyo, Berlin, Belgrade, and São Paulo. Coates is staging Up Your Ass word-for-word (“because it’s a world premiere”), but most of the text is sung karaoke-style to pop songs of the mid ’60s. After Coates had turned Up Your Ass into a musical, Valerie’s sister told assistant director Eddy Falconer that Solanas used to make up funny lyrics about her family to pop songs when she was eight.
It was Falconer, who calls herself a “failed” female-to-male (s/he adopts a male persona but has never taken hormones or had an operation), who hipped Coates to Solanas. Falconer had encountered SCUM through the punk subculture in Berlin. Although Solanas herself was a total loner, she’s been taken up by punks, anarchists, and surrealists—who hate Warhol—as well as young radical feminists, gender benders, and assorted fans of Kathy Acker and cartoonist Diane di Massa’s homicidal lesbian terrorist. A score of SCUM pirated editions circulate on paper and many more on Web sites.
Coates discovered Up Your Ass in a small Solanas show Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum had put up to mark the 30th anniversary of the shooting. Turns out the copy Warhol lost had been buried under lighting equipment in a silver trunk owned by photographer Billy Name, famous for covering the original Factory with aluminum foil.
Early on, Coates sent Eddy Falconer to talk with Valerie’s sister, Judith, who described the underpinnings of the rage Solanas turned into Lenny Bruce-style satire, including sexual abuse by her father as a small child; the birth of a son at age 15, fathered by a married man (the child was taken away, never to be seen again); her year in a mental hospital in Florida; her struggles, on and off medication, to write. Folk rumors that a super at the Hotel Bristol, where she died, had heard her typing sparked hopes that more Solanas writings might be unearthed. But Judith says that their mother burned all of Valerie’s belongings after her death.
“We’re breaking the taboo about Valerie with this production,” says Coates, “introducing her to a new, younger audience as a very funny satirist and not just as Warhol’s shooter.” But breaking taboos has meant all of Coates’s regular funders have deserted him. Coates, who’s gotten money regularly from the NEA, knew he couldn’t get it for Up Your Ass. Feeling censored, he decided to stage two plays with one all-female cast in repertory: Up Your Ass and Arthur Miller’s The Archbishop’s Ceiling, set in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, about how human identity is distorted by censorship. Miller’s play will open in February. Oddly, Miller and Solanas had converged once before, when Solanas thrust a SCUM leaflet into his hands in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel sometime in the ’60s.
Using the same all-female cast for both productions gives Coates a way to update the plays by showing how gender is performative, and how censorship in America now centers on gender fluidity. Although Up Your Ass was written in the ’60s, some of Solanas’s lines sound very turn of the century. As Coates stages it, Solanas’s two drag queens, Miss Collins and Scheherazade, are played by two actresses in male drag playing drag queens. Both sport Dolly Parton wigs, mustaches, and sideburns.
MISS COLLINS: I face reality, and reality is we’re men.
SCHEHERAZADE: You are what you look like.
BONGI: You are very pretty for a boy.
SCHEHERAZADE: What do you mean for a boy? Look, not to brag, but I know what I’ve got.
MISS COLLINS: Do you know where you’ve got it? It’s between your legs. . . . Shall I tell you a secret? I despise men! Oh, why do I have to be one of them? [Brightening] Do you know what I’d like to be more than anything in the world? A lesbian. Then I could be the cake and eat it, too.
Coates thinks that if Solanas could see this production of Up Your Ass, she might laugh. Of course, he adds, if Valerie were around, she’d insist on directing.