Los Angeles

Jo Harvey Allen, “Hally Lou”

Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, sponsored by the California Institute Of The Arts and the Museum of Contemporary Art

The reviews of Jo Harvey Allen’s one-act play about a would-be evangelist, Hally Lou, like those of last year’s Counter Angel, are sprinkled with the words “real,” “genuine,” and “authentic.” Hally Lou brings to the art world a kind of person, particularly a kind of woman, who seldom appears in that locale. And, the reviewers note, the artist shares her origins and her accent: like Hally Lou and Ruby Kay, the truck-stop waitress of Counter Angel, Allen hails from where Charles Kuralt goes “on the road” and where NBC finds “real people”—that is, from where authenticity and genuineness are a function of geography.

Allen may come from Lubbock, Texas, and live in Fresno, but finally she’s closer to the purveyors and producers of the real, to those who represent, than to those she portrays. She plays the title role in this performance, the wife of a poor itinerant preacher. The name “Hally Lou” is an inadvertent pun, a stage name Allen’s heroine has made up for the evening revival meeting that will be her debut. Her husband Hollis and her children, who appear only as voices over the CB radio, are all sick with stomach flu, and Hally decides—or, in her wording, is called—to continue her husband’s work, much to his dismay, and to preach in his stead. Hally Lou begins as she starts to set up her stage outside town, in the back of a pickup decked out with wooden crosses strewn with Christmas lights. We watch her rehearsing, testing and retesting her words and inflections and recording her speech as she goes, and we see her increasingly spectacular plans set against the radioed pleas of her sick and hungry family. When she briefly from the Scriptures, for example, we know that she has already spent her savings on a new dress, that she intends to give a sermon, that she has even bought a snake.

Allen intends Hally Lou to be a tale of innocence and corruption, of faith and marketing. Her monologue switches from simple speech punctuated with reflections on the presence of Jesus in daily life, with Hally Lou’s voice suggesting, or standing for, real belief, to its cassette-recorded and amplified opposite. Her everyday Jesus becomes dramatic and miraculous, her vision of the Rapture is replaced by a vision of fame, of preaching by satellite to the faceless multitudes. But finally, as night approaches and Hally uncovers the snake (the one act still unrehearsed), she is filled with doubt and fear. She begins to question her ability and to sense her corruption, and she draws again on her innocent faith, praying first for Hollis and the children and then for the strength to carry out her mission.

In an interview in the Los Angeles Times, Allen said that Hally Lou “isn’t really about religion; it’s about contradictions . . . about what this woman is going through.” But the contradictions she builds do not make her character complex, individual, or specific, nor do they raise her to the universal. Rather, they make her simple, reduce her to type. At the source of the problem is the question of Hally Lou’s faith. Allen and her art-world audience have not been “Washed in the Blood,” as Allen sings; although Hally Lou might momentarily make them feel that as a loss, they don’t really see her simple belief as an option. For them it is more likely to operate as a joke at her expense than as a sustaining tradition; Hally Lou’s faith is a correlate of her simpleness.

And it is in her simplicity, in her inability to see her rather simple contradictions—that is, in her lack of consciousness—that her “genuineness” and her “authenticity” also lie. Allen’s working definition of the authentic, of real people, is those who have no self-consciousness, who cannot represent themselves. The cassette recorder, the amplifier, television, even the stage name—all images of prior and prerecorded speech—are her symbols of corruption. To be authentic Hally Lou must be not only simple but dumb, unable to speak.

Finally, Hally Lou’s supposed genuineness returns to rest on Allen and on their shared origin. But Allen keeps winking to the audience from inside her role. Although she plays Hally Lou, she perhaps appears in the work in another guise, as an artist she has Hally tell us about. It seems she met him in town that morning and he bought her the tooled cowboy boots she wears with her new white dress. This artist figure makes clear what Allen has done; she has dressed her character in “authentic” Western garb, in the clothes that make up her costume—in the mask she must wear in order for Allen to represent her. And finally she is only that mask. “Authentic” and “genuine” are ideological terms, labels placed by those who have the power to represent on those who do not. And they always deform.

Howard Singerman