Taylor Mac with music director/arranger Matt Ray. Image credit: Ves Pitts.
It’s taken me over two weeks to get around to writing about experiencing Taylor Mac’s glorious, epic, mind-blowing, paradigm-shifting, eye-popping, inspiring, utterly magnificent 24-Decade History of Popular Music.
Sheer cowardice. The show was so complex, so full, so LONG (24 hours, divided over two weekends of 12 hours each – for which we twice made a round trip pilgrimage to Philadelphia), with so much information, so many diverse and complicated moments – beautiful moments, provocative moments, funny moments, poignant moments, breathtaking moments, squirm-inducing moments – that I have feared myself not wholly up to the task of capturing it in writing; a task made even more complicated by the fact that (silly me) I (twice!) forgot to bring any paper, and so what few notes I have from the twenty-four hour performance are scribbled – mostly unintelligibly – on scraps torn from receipts, on the margin of my ticket, and on little green bits of paper scavenged from the floor of the theater after Mac had the audience make confetti out of a list of members of Congress.
But one of those notes gives me heart: “Perfectionism is for assholes,” judy (this is Taylor Mac’s preferred gender pronoun) says several times during the show, whenever judy fucks up or forgets a lyric (which is actually surprisingly rare, given…); and in that spirit, forgiving myself in advance for what is sure to contain failure, I shall forge ahead.
Taylor Mac (Decade 2) with knitters in background.
Where to start?
With the first, opening moment of audience communion, as we all sang (or was it hummed?) “Amazing Grace” to a middle-aged woman pulled from the audience, who stood on stage awkwardly at first, as one does when one has been conscripted into participation, but then miraculously relaxed and opened her arms wide in an uplifted embrace of the song, the spirit, and the audience’s energy?
With Mac’s clear-sighted rendition of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” towards the end of the first hour, a rendition that pointedly positioned the song as an instantiation of homophobia and the use of queer-shaming to “other” one’s enemy?
With judy’s reminiscences of fraternity drinking parties and the kinky goings-on in New York’s gay club scene as part of the time-tesseract enfolded into the third decade, which revolved around drinking songs from the turn of the 19th century?
Decade 3 (drinking songs)
Or shall I skip ahead a few decades (and a few hours) to judy’s brilliant defamiliarization of “Johnny Comes Marching Home,” a song normally played as a happy march, but here sung as a ballad of loss, yearning, and the toll of war?
You can see my challenge here: we’re not even past the Civil War and already both my capacity for memory and powers of description are taxed.
The show, which Mac describes as a “subjective take on history” that spends 24 hours asking (but not answering) the question “how do we build ourselves when we are tearing ourselves apart?”, is a history from the perspective of the outsider, the marginalized, the female, the non-white, and, especially, the queer, told through a combination of song, commentary, and spectacle. Each decade of history gets roughly an hour of performance time, and many of the decades have a theme or narrative, beginning with the “core values” of this country in the first decade (1776-1786) – which include “hating Congress” and “making things,” which is why there’s a group of knitters on stage – and moving through the early feminist movement (1786-1796), the drinking songs (of course! the country is in its twenties from 1796-1806!), and into a three decade/hour long imagined “heteronormative jukebox narrative about colonization” that Mac dreams will be a Broadway musical and then an Oscar-winning film, but which gets derailed by a queer Native American character’s refusal to go along with her role in the story, and during which, for an hour, we are blindfolded.
And so on, and so on, decade by decade, up to 2006-2016, right on our historical doorstep.
Highlights include a “smackdown” between Walt Whitman and Stephen Foster for the title of “Father of American Song” (1846-56); a version of the Mikado set on Mars, with Mac playing one of the male characters (I think it was the Lord High Executioner? forgive me, at this point we were in the 11th hour), because playing a female character would be “an appropriation of my appropriation” (1876-86); a balloon party in the audience, to the tune of “Happy Days are Here Again,” celebrating the end of WWI (1916-26); Mac-as-Jackie Kennedy, descending from the flies on airplane wings (1956-66); a Cold War “battle” of enormous inflated penises from the US and USSR (was that the 60s? 70s? I don’t remember now) that ends, predictably enough, in (ahem) mutual deflation; a festive, celebratory funeral for Judy Garland – played by a game young woman from the audience who was borne on the shoulders of four equally game young men as they processed through the orchestra level and out the theater – during which costume designer Machine Dazzle and “Dandy Minion” artistic director Timothy White Eagle paid deadpan homage dressed as popcorn-munching Dorothys from The Wizard of Oz; an extended moment when we all sang “The People Have the Power,” over and over again, willing it to be true; and an insanely beautiful, enormous cloth vagina that started as a set piece and ended as a beautiful dress (2006-16, natch). (If you want a blow by blow description of the show from someone who seemed to have taken notes, go here and read Chloe Veltman’s account of the October 2016 24-hr performance).
Decade 4 – in background, L to R: Machine Dazzle (exiting) & Dandy Minions
With each decade comes a new costume, as well. Machine Dazzle, the mad-genius costume designer-creator, is as much a part of the performance as his creations – he struts on during the transitions to transform Mac into a new look for each decade, in costumes that capture elements of the decade in warped, wild, and wonderful ways. Lucky for both of us, Mac does not discourage the audience from taking photographs, so I don’t have to describe them, I can just sprinkle images throughout this post (apologies for the picture quality – we were seated in the back of the house and I was using a new device). Among my favorites were the enormous balloon concoction that greeted our eyes when we removed our blindfolds in the mid-19th century, and the strange “soft-serve ice cream cone” outfit Mac wore during the hour in which judy sang songs from the Depression about hunger, poverty, and need.
The songs themselves – 246 in all – are sung with their original lyrics; it’s Taylor Mac’s ingenious interpretations of the songs – which have been brilliantly arranged by composer/music director/onstage performer Matt Ray – that provide irony, subtext, and commentary on the era from which they have been drawn. John Torres’s indescribably stunning lighting design also does a lot of the work framing and alienating the songs – his hybrid concert/theatrical lighting finds the pitch-perfect look and emotional resonance for every moment of the show. Between songs, Mac fills in the details of history, points out contradictions, draws connections between history and the present day, drops pithy observations like “heteronormative and colonial are the same thing,” tells stories, cajoles and teases the audience, directs judy’s cohort of 25 or so mostly genderqueer and often quite scantily clad “Dandy Minions” to interact with the audience and bring in props, food, merriment, and mayhem, and recruits (or conscripts) members of the audience to the stage.
Decade 10 (1866-76): “Family Dinner” – during this decade, about two dozen members of the audience were invited onstage to join in a “nonpolitical family Thanksgiving dinner” (hah!) while the rest of the audience enjoyed a boxed meal of roasted vegetables and orzo at their seats.
Audience participation is pretty much unavoidable in this performance – not everyone is pulled onstage (thank god), but everyone is invited to sing along, stand, engage with their neighbor, pepper the performers with ping pong balls, blow up balloons and toss them about, tear up paper, smell flowers, move seats, engage in competitions, and drink beer and eat food that is passed out by the Dandy Minions and the audience members they recruit to help them.
Decade 11 (1876-86): Martian Mikado. Taylor Mac in gold headdress; background and to his left: audience members.
Much as the content of Mac’s performance was stimulating and provocative, it was actually this formal aspect – the audience engagement and the chaotic, open, and dialogic nature of both the performance and the space, in which, over the course of many hours, a community was joyfully and magically formed among strangers – that made 24-Decade such an impactful experience. My friend and colleague Jill Dolan has written passionately and lucidly about theater as a space of “utopian performance,” that is, as a space where people can congregate to engage in shared meaning-making and imagine into existence, even if in a fleeting or incomplete way, a better world. The experience of being in Taylor Mac’s audience was, above all, that – Mac and judy’s splendidly talented collaborators put us in the history judy sought to queer, made us active in the contestation of that history, and in so doing gave us the opportunity to share in making new meanings, through shared astonishment, joy, hilarity, grief, anger, and exhaustion.
Decade 15 (1916-26) “Happy Days are Here Again” balloon party, with guest performer Martha Graham Cracker (center stage, on floating pink flamingo).
I’m just sorry you missed it, dear Reader. If you are within striking distance of this remarkable performance at some time in the future, find a way to see it. Invite me – I’ll go again! In the meantime, I leave you with a link to this article by C. J. Boyd about the show that captures, much better than I could, the way 24-Decade engages a queer futurity . . . and, to whet your envy, images from the final 9 hours of the performance . . .
Decade 17 (1936-46): Mac as WW2 bomber plane; in background, Machine Dazzle with Mt. Rushmore headdress.
Decade 18 (1946-56): “Pretty Woman” – white flight to the suburbs (picket fence shawl, 3D-glasses headdress, inflatable white poodle)
Decade 19 (1956-66): the elaborate entrance of Jackie Kennedy!
Decade 20 – Disco Era (1966-76): Mac in the audience (just before we are to act the part of his childhood homophobic bullies by pummeling him with ping pong balls).
Mac & some of the Dandy Minions (Decade 20)
Decade 21 : US “vs.” USSR
Decade 22 (1976-86): AIDS crisis (note cassette-tape dress & death-trio headdress)
Decade 23 (1986-96): Mac invites lesbians in the audience to the stage & sings an hour-long tribute to the radical lesbian feminist community.
Final curtain call (Mac in center, in “vagina dress”). Photo Narelle Sissons.