Donna Kaz’s Un/Masked: Memoirs of a Guerrilla Girl on Tour (Skyhorse, 2016), chronicles the birth of a feminist who uses feminism to overcome a history of intimate partner violence that prevented her from seeing herself as a strong and vibrant artist and woman. Braiding the narrative of abuse with the urgent struggle of solidifying her place in theater, Kaz provides her readers with a dynamic storyline that keeps us turning the pages in search of the ingredient that all women seek towards their empowerment. Applying humor, candor, and in some places, the form that playwrights use when constructing scenes and dialogue, we see how the artistic mind finds solace and empowerment while navigating the trenches of love and abuse.
Kaz is in her early twenties when she meets Bill, a famous and charismatic actor who charms her into a three-year courtship full of sex, tenderness, bloody noses, and bruises. Much older than her, and much more experienced in the nuances of relationships, in Bill, we encounter a narcissist entrenched in his own self-worth. Unfortunately for the young Kaz who becomes enamored with him, he is too strong, too overpowering, and too manipulative for any twenty-year-old girl to see beyond his handsomeness and charisma. For the next three years, Kaz becomes the target of his unfettered rage when he feels insecure with his acting or his work.
Donna Kaz skillfully weaves in and out of the abuse so that her readers don’t get bogged down by the heaviness of violence, which she does not have the power or the experience to flee. In contrast to the abuse she encounters in her relationship with Bill, we’re propelled forward twenty years circa the late 90s. It is during this time in her life that she becomes involved with the Guerrilla Girls, an activist group of feminists who wear gorilla masks and protest the male dominated arena of the arts. Along with the gorilla masks, the women’s anonymity is further established when they each assume the moniker of a dead artist in a poetic attempt to represent and give voice to artists, poets, musicians, and writers the male industry of the arts renders invisible. Kaz assumes the name of Aphra Behn, the first English female known to have made her living as a writer during the 1600’s.
Concealed behind the gorilla mask and Aphra Behn’s name, Donna Kaz finds a voice that refutes the secondary and silenced inferiority meant for female artists in an industry that produces plays, music, art, and theater only created by men and only honoring men. The Guerrilla Girls spent their free time advocating for their rights to be artists, to produce their own work, to share with the world creative outlets that rest on female power and volition, and to open doors for the next generation of female artists entering this very patriarchal and male-run platform of the arts. Being a Guerrilla Girl and advocating for other women inevitably guarantees Kaz the courage she needed to also express the abuse she suffered at the hands of her intimate partner twenty years earlier. She not only named the abuse, but she also, finally, named her abuser, which cut him off entirely from her life, allowing her to move on, fall in love and marry, and pursue her artistic dreams:
I steep myself in feminism, which I believe will eradicate any traces
of low self-esteem, rid me forever of longing to go backward in time,
and show my batterer I would make it in this world without him…Yes,
feminism will be the antidote to all my problems.
More importantly, however, this articulation of abuse gives Donna Kaz permission to assert herself as a writer, a playwright, and an actor. These identities that position her in the face of power, independence, and confidence over her work, evaded her while she lived with the secret of her abuse, for he was the actor, the artist, not her. At the heart of this narrative, we find a woman who locates in her art and her feminism the authority to finally see herself as an artist.
In her memoir, Kaz unmasks not only herself, coming out from behind the masks of both gorilla and Aphra Behn, but she also unmasks the way women are silenced in the arts and in intimate relationships that function to subordinate both women and their potential simultaneously. At a pivotal time when young women are finding their voice – as writers/artists and as individuals – we see how abuse can counter this budding promise. It isn’t until Kaz is in her forties that she does find her voice as an artist and as a woman, refusing to be silenced by an abusive man who believed that his career as an actor was more important than hers – that his creative contributions were more riveting, more significant to this world than hers.
In the end, Donna Kaz’s memoir reinforces the need for more female artists to put their voices out there through their writing, singing, acting, creating, producing, and composing, for it’s our time to let the world know that our voices, our art, matters. No one has the right to silence us, and our art gives us the courage to take back our power. As Donna Kaz so aptly puts it, “Only when women’s narratives are equally heard can solutions rise to some of the injustices that plague us all. Without the voice and the vision of women and artists of color, the theatre is a play without a second act.”