As a kid, Anthony Hudson often tagged along as his dad, a tribal social worker, gave presentations about the Indian Child Welfare Act. Hudson’s dad had a knack for warming up the audience before the PowerPoint kicked in.
“He has a partial denture thanks to Indian healthcare,” Hudson says. “So he would always start by pulling out his teeth and saying, ‘I got summer teeth. Some are here; some are there.’”
And now, Hudson has a PowerPoint pageant—of sorts—of his own. In Looking for Tiger Lily, the Portland performer recounts growing up as a gay, TV-obsessed, half-white, half-Native American kid in Keizer, Oregon, and digs into his still-conflicted sense of identity. It’s a more personal focus for Hudson, best known as the dramatically made-up drag clown Carla Rossi, a drunken art-school project who’s become a brazen, potty-mouthed critic of white privilege.
“Everything with Carla is kind of a fantasy,” Hudson says, “whereas this is me telling my life story and talking about growing up and unleashing family secrets.”
Hudson, who’s German on his mom’s side and a Grande Ronde tribal member on his dad’s, has fashioned the show as a pop culture-filled romp through family history and the complexities of racial, sexual, and gender identity. Touchstones include Pocahontas, Cher’s 1973 hit “Half-Breed,” Native American costumes fashioned from brown paper bags, and, of course, Peter Pan—Mary Martin’s filmed 1960 version, not the Disney movie. The songs—“I’ve been calling them ancestral hymns, but basically they’re terrible songs by white people about Native experience,” Hudson says—are cut with a slideshow of Hudson’s family and childhood and other video clips. He also gets backup from pin-up dance troupe the Dolly Pops, and from musician Maria Choban, whom Hudson calls “a terrifying dominatrix of piano.”
Growing up in Keizer, near Salem, Hudson says his Native heritage wasn’t central to his sense of self. He has two older half-brothers on the Warm Springs reservation, and family gatherings were fry bread-filled affairs at the casino. But he was raised mostly as an only child, and even as his dad schlepped him to social work conferences, he didn’t school him in tribal traditions. (A notable exception? When, at 14, Hudson told his parents he was gay, his dad was “super chill.” He explained the notion of two-spirit—a pan-Native term for queerness—and even provided his son with academic papers on the subject. “It was insane,” Hudson says. “I was really lucky.”)
Moreover, Hudson’s fair skin meant he could easily pass as white—whether that was his intention or not. He speculates that may have fueled his childhood obsession with Peter Pan.
“I thought it was cool that there were Indians in it, even though I don’t think I ever thought about the fact that they were white,” he says. “Part of that is because my skin is pretty white. If anything, it made it more relatable for me.”
But his love for Peter Pan remains complicated. “The song ‘Ugg-A-Wugg’ has always haunted me, and has always been one I’ve wanted to perform,” Hudson says. “The setup for this show is whether I have the right to reclaim ‘Ugg-A-Wug,’ or if I’m too afraid to, because of how I present. Am I authentically Native enough, even though I wasn’t raised with our traditions? Can I still do this, or am I just another white asshole trying to be edgy and artsy?”
Looking for Tiger Lily runs Sept 30–Oct 1 at the Hollywood Theatre.