Performance art has always been a problematic theatrical genre. Ephemeral by nature, frequently dismissed as self-indulgent and artless, there is, as Holly Hughes writes in the introduction to O Solo Homo (Grove Press, $17.50), "a pejorative connotation to the term 'performance art,' a sense that it is a junior-achievement art form, a warm-up to making real art, or just a phase some of us had to go through." Hughes, a celebrated performance artist who edited this compendium on queer art with David Roman, goes on to add that some of the form's most successful practitioners--Spalding Gray, Laurie Anderson, and Eric Bogosian--are not even spoken of as "performance artists" anymore--they've been up-graded to "making theater." It seems odd that these heterosexual writers and performers have found the spotlight, while their queer counterparts languish in the wings.
O Solo Homo provides two vital services to the queer performance scene. While giving queer performance its artistic due, Hughes and Roman place it firmly in its political and cultural context--from testifying in African-American churches (where the modern civil-rights movement was born), through the consciousness-raising of second-wave feminism and the confessional poetry of Sylvia Plath, to the current boom in literary memoirs. In this light, queer performance becomes part of a uniquely American tradition.
O Solo Homo also rescues from obscurity important queer performances, making many available in print for the first time. Hughes' and Roman's selections reflect the vitality and diversity of solo queer performance--from Tim Miller negotiating love and sex in the age of AIDS in "Naked Breath" to Peggy Shaw depicting the onset of butchness in "You're Just Like My Father," queer performers confront race, ethnicity, parenthood, addiction, and more.
In their introductions to the pieces collected in O Solo Homo, the performers describe solo performance as the search for artistic authenticity. As Michael Kearns puts it, "It is the only form where I have been allowed to immerse myself entirely, without compromise, utilizing my body, voice, brain, heart, soul, and guts."
When that artistic integrity is combined with cultural, personal, and sexual politics, the results can be explosive. As O Solo Homo repeatedly proves, there is nothing more radical than one queer, on-stage, telling the truth.