Holly Hughes began her career at New York's wow Cafe, that “home for wayward girls” featuring work by lesbians. There she developed her first play, The Well of Horniness (1983)—now a classic in certain circles. Hughes moved very quickly from that playful soap opera parody to experimental non-narrative pieces such as The Lady Dick (1985) and Dress Suits to Hire (1987). All of Hughes's work has an undercurrent of dark comic rage. And her subject has always been relationships between women. Despite her notoriety as a “lesbian artist,” this does not necessarily mean sexual relationships. Her characters do tend to drive each other to emotional extremes; they do put their sexuality up front. But they are basically trying to understand their own identities in a world where they don't have a place.
In 1990, Hughes was touring in World Without End, a monologue inspired by the death of her mother, when she and three other performance artists—Karen Finley, John Fleck, and Tim Miller—were defunded by then-chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, John Frohnmayer. Although the chairman declared that the work of these artists lacked artistic merit, the NEA 4 went to court, charging that they'd been defunded for political reasons. Never interested in offering simple answers or definitions—especially for a word like “lesbian”—Hughes now found such simplifications both demanded of her and projected onto her. Becoming visible for all the wrong reasons brought daily reminders of her lesbianism as an embattled identity, but in 1992, Hughes completed a new play about racism, No Trace of the Blonde. And she continues the task of extricating herself and her work from the distorting notoriety that surrounds the censorship crisis.