Review: Searching for True Representation in Looking for Tiger Lily

Humour used as a medium for healing as Looking for Tiger Lily puts a queer spin on First Nations storytelling, writes Angelina Hurley. Blak Critics is a YIRRAMBOI initiative giving voice to First Nations writers and critics.

Known as Portland’s premier drag clown, Carla Rossi AKA Anthony Hudson’s treat of a show Looking for Tiger Lily provided a welcome laugh at the end of my YIRRAMBOI Festival journey this year.

Hudson and Carla delved into the history of their family and Native American identity. Combining singing, dancing, drag, and video art, the performance’s perfectly succinct theme of decolonisation unpicked stereotypical, Disney-like takes on their culture. Depictions like the character Princess Tiger Lily from the 1953 animated movie Peter Pan, and of a blonde, blue-eyed actor that once portrayed the character on stage when Hudson was a kid.

The concerns resonated with many of the stories I experienced this YIRRAMBOI, and while I found Carla’s clown face quite confronting at first – a broad smile combined with the lampooning of this stereotypical mimicry of ‘Indian’ dancing and drumming – it formed a powerful opening to the show, grabbing my attention.

I giggled in shock at what passed for okay in kids’ entertainment in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, though this sort of racism shouldn’t have surprised me from Disney, I suppose. Thinking of an Aussie comparison, I recalled the cringe-worthy sight of New Zealand–born actor James Laurenson in blackface playing a ‘biracial’ Aboriginal detective in TV show Boney, though that wasn’t for kids.

Carla hammed it up even further with a sing-a-long to 19th century children’s rhyming song ‘Ten Little Indians’ and a projected show reel of its usage in cartoons and advertising, including by celebrities, hilariously exclaiming it was, ‘proudly brought to you by the Department of Misappropriation.’

Divided into chapters, Hudson introduced each section of this touching autobiographical show with classic cowboy songs like ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’, narrating us through a journey from childhood to the present. It’s a family history very relatable to us as First Nations peoples, sharing the impact of colonisation, and a stark reminder that Native Americans were granted citizenship in 1924, as compared to the late ’60s for us here in Australia.

We heard the amazing story of Hudson’s father’s career as a US army serviceman, and also as a Native American civil rights activist. We learnt about the categorisation and convoluted statistics of the blood quantum system, and were introduced to Hudson’s Native American grandmother, with photos displayed portraying a strong, regal First Nations woman as Hudson recounted the beautiful last moment spent with her before she, as they say, ‘walked on.’

Looking for Tiger Lily has been dubbed Hudson’s ‘queer spin’ on the ancestral traditions of storytelling, and Carla spontaneously interjects with perfect comedic timing. Through recollections of being confused by Pocahontas, to performing renditions of ‘Half-Breed’ by Cher – who is outed as an Armenian pop star idol – to likening their coming out as the perfect Enya moment (referring to the popular Irish singer), Hudson had us all giggling along.

Hudson identifies through art, and that sang loudly. It was great to experience the humour of another group of First Nations peoples expressed as a medium for healing, and the show ended with a powerful familial reconciliation captured in a photograph that spoke a thousand words. We all understood the love that we witnessed.

Looking for Tiger Lily premiered in Australia at YIRRAMBOI Festival 2019, and was originally funded in part by the Regional Arts & Culture Council and developed in partnership with the 2016 Risk/Reward Festival of New Performance. This engagement was supported by the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation through USArtists International in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Andrew W Mellon Foundation.

Image: Carla Rossi / Anthony Hudson by Adam Kissick