BY Sarah Dwons
BOOK REVIEW – Un/Masked: Memoirs of a Guerrilla Girl on Tour, by Donna Kaz (a/k/a Aphra Behn)
New York City, 1977. Emerging from its lowest point, New York City is quiet. Its streets are grubby, parks empty, subways operating on a wing and a prayer. Enter Donna Kaz, aspiring actress, playwright in the making, future feminist activist. Eager to join the world of theater, she embraces a busy schedule of classes, auditions and more classes, with the actress’s classic day job — waiting on tables. Just as she is gaining some traction in her career, in walks a handsome stranger and out go her dreams.
So begins Ms. Kaz’s autobiography. In a fresh, easy style she leads us on her journey of discovery, loss and redemption. With humor and a distinct lack of self-pity, she retells the history of a life on the verge, a career derailed, and ultimately one of success. She is no weak sister. Alternating scenes from her recent life as a writer with the story of her early years and her time in Hollywood, Kaz evokes the past and present at once, meeting herself in the middle. We meet her as she is today – successful playwright and Guerrilla Girl, but also as she was as a naïve young woman searching for her unique identity. When she turns from her own career to follow her man to Hollywood, Kaz loses herself, overshadowed by her glamorous, imposing lover with his outsize ego and outsize capacity for violence. She sacrifices her own career as she is drawn into a life of domestic abuse, with its revolving door of beatings and passionate rapprochements. It is only after she ‘escapes’ the prison of this destructive love affair that she rediscovers her love of writing and so reclaims her life.
Kaz returns to New York City where she rediscovers her talent for writing, becoming an award-winning playwright. A naturally outspoken woman (horror!), when she discovers the Guerrilla Girls she finds a sweet spot. These feminist crusaders protest against the sexism rife in the arts and theater, honoring the past by adopting the names of dead female artists as pseudonyms. Emboldened by the anonymity of the gorilla mask, they blanket the city with leaflets and stage various public events in an effort to heighten awareness of the paucity of opportunities for women artists, to unmask the unspoken presumption that works by and about women are by definition minor; uninteresting and unworthy. It echoes the denigration of women everywhere, in a form of artistic ‘abuse’ imposed by a prevailing culture that wants to shut women down. It’s always a turf war. Theater is mine; this woman is mine. Adopting Aphra Behn*, as her ‘nom de Guerrilla,’ Kaz joins in the serious fun, creating “Guerrilla Girls on Tour!” which uses theater and humor to highlight the disparity between opportunities for men and for women in the arts.
Throughout this memoir, Kaz collapses the various layers of her life – thwarted actress, budding writer, latent activist, undiscovered feminist – to step out from behind the mask of her personal history. She declares: I’m still here and I like it. And I’m not going away.
* Aphra Behn, 17th century British playwright, poet, translator and author.