Author Joanna Rush says that is the trinity she tackles in her recently released book, “Asking For It: A Rockette’s Tale.” The fictionalized memoir is based on Rush’s long-running one-woman show, “Asking For It,”which details her journey from a cloistered Irish-Catholic upbringing to the mean streets of New York City, where the upstart chorus girl discovers cruel realities that threaten to squash her sense of faith and her hope. She deals with homelessness and heartache, loses friends to AIDS and endures horrific sexual violence. (The titles of the projects refer to the callous words of a police officer that discovered Rush after she was raped: “You were asking for it.”) Ultimately she triumphs, making her way to the bright lights of Broadway and beyond one resolute step – or rather, high-kick – at a time.
“Asking For It: A Rockette’s Tale” balances pathos with humor, translating the dark comedy ofRush’s stage show into print. Rush’s spiritedness isn’t confined to her performances with that sequin-covered dance company she pursues, with dogged earnestness, for a job. It is found in her resolute insistence on finding bright spots even in the darkest times. Whether marveling at this flame-haired spitfire’s I’m-Going-To-Make-It moxie, or admiring her perseverance through the turmoil of religious guilt and sexist shaming, readers discover an unconquerable character Broadway couldn’t invent.
That character resonates strongly with the LGBT community, says Rush, who has a strong gay following. “Asking For It” touches on certain issues with obvious parallels to the LGBT experience: overcoming gender-based bias and bucking against the dogmatic rigidity of organized religion, just to start. But Rush also paints the picture of a tender, loving relationship between Bernie and her gay best friend, Johnnie. It is based on Rush’s real relationship with her best friend John, a gay activist. Rush watched as John and his partner – along with many other actor friends – died in a time when NYC seemed to the ground zero for AIDS.
“It was an incredible time,” recalls Rush of the artistic energy that flourished in NYC’s Village in the ‘80s. Then the epidemic descended, stealing away friends – and chosen family. “It changed our lives,” she says. “It’s important to know that piece of history.” Today Rush is an interfaith reverend, and officiates many same-sex ceremonies – partly out of tribute to the marriages her loving friends could never have.
The issues in “Asking For It” are certainly relevant to the present-day, a world in which churches and politicians are working harder as hard as ever on anti-woman agendas. Every day, it seems a different horrific headline – whether reporting the recent brutal rape of a young woman in India by a gang of thugs, or of a teenage girl by an Ohio football team – underscores the value of Rush sharing her experience. “It as important as ever to speak out,” says Rush.
But her story already exists as a show. Why write a book now? “What am I going to do, sit around and crochet?” jokes Rush with typically deadpan humor. Rush debuted her one-woman show in 2006 and continues to perform it across the country – she has plans for a college campus tour next year – but opportunities for actresses become fewer as they get older. Plus the book allows Rush to expand on the story. It incorporates greater background – particularly about her devout Catholic childhood – and introduces new characters that couldn’t be contained in the stage show. (She already plays nine characters in it. Enough, already!)
“It’s a completely different creative process,” says Rush of writing the book. Whereas producing a show more quickly becomes a collaborative process, Rush says that writing the book was a more autonomous experience. There isn’t the opportunity to workshop the piece, or digest immediate audience feedback. That feels scary, but in a way strangely cathartic for such a deeply personal piece. “In many ways, writing the book was comforting,” says Rush. “I had the freedom to go deeper.”
Still, as with her show, Rush chose to filter her experiences through a fictitious lead character, Bernie O’Connell. It’s a thin veil, but one that Rush doesn’t want to remove. “A few years ago a writer friend told me, ‘You need to own it,’” explains Rush. “But I needed it to be a character. I needed to be able to step back.”
“I did write it in first-person,” says Rush. “Even that was a big step.” And coming from a former Rockette, that’s saying a lot.
For more information on the “Asking For It” show and book, visit askingforitonline.com. Rush next performs her show on Monday, February 11 and Tuesday, February 12 at The Players Loft in New York City. (115 MacDougal Street; for free reservations visit amasmusical.org.) She will also appear at the 2013 AWP Conference & Book Fair from March 6 – 9 at Hynes Convention Center & Sheraton Boston Hotel. (Visit awpwriter.org)