Originally published July 29, 2017.
My gratuitous graduation gift-to-myself was a orchestra-level ticket to see Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Kennedy Center. I had followed the show ever since the 2014 Broadway revival and dutifully sobbed every time it was announced that one of my favorite actors would play the title role and I would be unable to see them. I hadn’t previously heard of Euan Morton (touring Hedwig), but considering I couldn’t get in a time machine to see Michael C. Hall and the probability that George Hearn or Mandy Patinkin would eventually pick up the role were slim to none, I figured this was my best shot.
Visually, Hedwig rocked my world — this includes the giddiness I experienced watching a smattering of (presumably) 50-year old white, (definitely) uncomfortable men leave the theatre in the middle of “Sugar Daddy.” What really struck my little majored-in-gender studies, enjoys-obsessing-over-dark-theatre heart was the ambiguity about Hedwig’s gender identity. Not how she presented, but who she knew herself to be when no one was looking. I could wax poetic about gender performativity à la my homegirl Judith Butler and how that relates to the murky transition from diegetic to non-diegetic music in the final third of the show, but I think it is far more interesting to compare the simple imagery of “Tear My Down” Hedwig (at the beginning) and “Midnight Radio” Hedwig (at the end).
Hedwig enters her stage decked in classic 80’s glam rock and unapologetic attitude; “Ladies and gentlemen, whether you like it or not, Hedwig!”
The stage is literally set: an impromptu swan-song concert taking place in an abandoned theatre atop a failed musical’s hodgepodge set pieces, all while our arch nemesis’s much-more-successful concert plays just down the street. The year is the ambivalent “now:” Hedwig performs for whatever present-day audience is put in front of her, but the wear and tear of the Cold War is not lost on her. Her husband, Yitzhak, furthers the air of mystery surrounding his partner:
On August 13th, 1961, a wall was erected down the middle of the city of Berlin. The world was divided by a cold war and the Berlin Wall was the most hated symbol of that divide. Reviled. Graffitied. Spit upon. We thought the wall would stand forever, and now that it’s gone, we don’t know who we are anymore. Ladies and gentlemen, Hedwig is like that wall, standing before you in the divide between east and west, slavery and freedom, man and woman, top and bottom.
The final parameter of Hedwig’s “divide” serve a dual purpose. First, they establish the bawdy, salacious tone of the rest of the show (the innuendos, pardon the pun, just keep coming). In a subtler way, they also describe just how indescribable Hedwig’s gender and sexuality are. Her queerness exceeds that which queer-coded language can properly described. In just under five minutes, Hedwig is proven to be both omnipresent and omnigender.
Throughout the show, Hedwig relives her sex change operation, traumatic recovery, failed and betrayed romances, and comes face to face with plain, naked dysphoria for what very well may be the first time. In the past she has “put on some makeup” and “put the wig back on [her] head” as methods of healing, but in “Hedwig’s Lament”/”Exquisite Corpse” she realizes the true implications of her mother’s warning: to go forward you must leave a piece of yourself behind. She has sacrificed so much of herself for others and may never be able to reclaim those parts. Suddenly, she tears away her bouffant, furs, and “tits of clay,” showing a bare chest, tear-stricken makeup, and her titular angry inch.
Is this the tearing down of Hedwig? She exits the stage to allow an exuberant Yitzhak to perform the final minutes of “Midnight Radio,” but is that symbolic of her end?
I don’t think so. She lists herself among music greats such as Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, and Yoko Ono, suggesting she still knows her own talent and value as a performer. However, in stripping herself of her full costume and allowing another star to shine, she accepts the incompatible threads of who she is and who she was. Although she still likely loves her glamorous clothes, makeup, and wigs, she is not just Hedwig when she wears them in front of an adoring crowd. Hedwig is Hedwig, even if just for Hedwig. That’s certainly enough of a reason for us all to join her and Yitzhak and lift up our hands.