All of the history on our backs: Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music
After experiencing Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music that took over St. Ann’s Warehouse this past weekend, I returned home for a bit of a lie down, and closed my eyes, only to discover judy’s image (Mac prefers the gender pronoun judy) burned onto my eyelids, as if I had been staring at a profile in the direct sunlight for so long that it left an imprint on my retina.
72 hours later, the deeply-felt, full-body impact of this titanic performance-community event is still working its way through my system — now, taking the form of a raw ache that is equal parts tenderness, joy, and overwhelm, tinged with some sadness, loss, rage, and a longing to return to that place. Boylesque performer Tigger, who ably leads the show’s band of Dandy Minions, caring for the audience, playing for and with us throughout the show’s duration, likes to say “Fuck ‘em in the heart” before he goes on stage. And they did — they fucked us good. This feeling, then, must be the afterglow, a side effect of Mac’s proclaimed “radical fairy realness ritual.”
Around Hour 23, Mac sang a rendition of Lauryn Hill’s Everything is Everything — and it was. After judy welcomed Timothy White Eagle to the stage, clad in a t-shirt that read “TOKEN” and featuring the image of a red-faced Indian; after judy then honored Timothy as a native person and a representative of his ancestors’ people, and gave him the gift of judy’s grandmother’s cherished ukulele as a sacrificial offering; after being asked to play a disorienting game of blindfolded musical chairs to mark the decade when Braille was invented and subsequently losing my seat; after a glow-in-the-dark Mikado sequence set on Mars so as to avoid cultural appropriation; after a wrestling match between lyricist Stephen Foster and poet Walt Whitman to crown the Father of American Song; after moving from the Civil War to the Oklahoma land grab to tenement life in NYC; after enacting white flight from the cities into the nation’s suburbs; after a 40-foot long inflatable red, white, and blue penis crowd-surfed the audience; and, after the Brooklyn United Marching Band played Curtis Mayfield’s Move On Up, stirring the audience to their feet in wild applause, just around breakfast time, judy cautioned, “Wait. There’s still 5 more hours to go.”
Why 24 hours of performance?
Taylor Mac offers the show, in part, as a space and a means through which we might collectively consider “all of the history on our backs.” During 246 songs representing 24 decades of mostly American music, from battle hymns to black spirituals, murder ballads, minstrel tunes, work songs, Tin Pan Alley, musical theater, Motown, 80’s pop music, and radical punk anthems, we wrestle with and attempt to hold that history, in its breadth, depth, and complexity. This work of holding and considering an idea, a person, a narrative or history in its complexity, takes time. It takes practice, and it is itself a practice. This act of consideration was our collective purpose and practice throughout the show’s duration.
Mac shares that the project’s origins spring from a moment in his adolescence when he attended an AIDS Walk in San Francisco and interacted with “out” queer people for the first time. Mac describes seeing people physically ravaged by AIDS, people in wheelchairs being pushed by their loved ones, and, also, people taking to the streets, out of anger, rage, and love. He describes a community falling apart and re-building itself at the same time, and wanting to create a performance experience that leads a group of people through that process. This work of unraveling and dismantling, while re-imagining and building anew, takes time, especially if one wants to do more than gesture at it. If we can undergo this process of falling apart and coming together for real, Mac’s project suggests, performance may realize its transformative potential — a theatrical event as social action.
For 24 hours, 600 audience members, along with more than 100 artist-performers, stagehands, designers, and producers work in concert and with astounding care to take this history off our backs and put it into our bodies — walking, wading, stumbling, playing through it together. Through cleverly devised theatrical games and performance interactions, through role play, we consider and oftentimes subvert these shared histories. Mac plays with historical re-enactment, and through the ridiculous, through humor, through camp, we discover deeper truths.
During a re-enactment of the Oklahoma land grab, the theater chairs disappear and we are left with orange borders of different sizes on the floor. Mac tells us to run to the other side of the theater, grab a balloon and get it back to one of those squares, staking our claim on a seating area, possibly for the remainder of the show. Scared and elated, 600 people dash and jostle. Someone next to me is left without a square so my friend and I let him join our land. We spend the next three hours snuggled/crowded together on a small swath of floor — a real, but temporary, inconvenience, Mac would tease, just enough discomfort for a “bourgeois crisis.”
As we test our comfort levels, both in playing with one another and in facing painful legacies, feelings of shame, guilt, fear, and self-consciousness inevitably bubble up. Mac’s performative exploits ask us to face these difficult emotions head-on and hands-on, but with empathy and humor. During white flight from the cities, white audience members are asked to move from the center section and double up with audience members on the side of the theater, while the people of color in attendance are invited to occupy the center seats, taking in the remainder of the show from the better vantage point. White audience members are then encouraged to beat their chests and cry out with white guilt, and quickly asked to “can it” when we begin to overdo it. Collectively, we imagine ourselves on the bus to the March on Washington. Mac asks if anyone in the audience was there. An older woman raises her hand and calls out, “I was!” She moves into the center section to share her story. As we get more comfortable with our own discomfort and as our threshold for play expands, we begin to build real intimacy with ourselves and one another. We begin to make space for different kinds of bodies, narratives, histories, and experiences. We are doing it for real now.
Ultimately, the show’s duration reaches far beyond its epic 24 hours, presenting a constellation of ideas, themes, questions, political and performance strategies, and aesthetics that Mac has been cultivating and working with for a long time — particularly in close collaboration with the genius musical director Matt Ray and the fiery orb of brilliance that is costume designer Machine Dazzle, among many others.
In fact, the performance’s duration surpasses Mac’s own body of work, conjuring movements — from women’s liberation to civil and gay rights, to radical fairy communities, avant-garde performance, and radical lesbian activism. The show takes place on, and places all of us in a great continuum, although not necessarily a linear one. Warping time and form, Mac’s personal stories of otherness and belonging co-mingle with themes and events of the past, historic resistance movements find their way onto the stage as performance tactics, and emblems and inventions of the past are regurgitated and exploded, elevated through Dazzle’s drag.
As we round towards the 24th hour, I wonder: How are Matt, Machine, Tigger, Taylor, and all the rest of these Dandy avengers still going? Before Matt Ray leaves the stage, he holds Mac in a long embrace, breaking down into tears. We feel the enormity of the thing — the five years spent working on the project, the performances leading up to the marathon event, the last 24 hours, and all that history on our backs and in the room. It is momentous. At one moment, Mac can barely hold his banjo to play — judy’s voice begins to waver in and out — someone in the audience calls, “We got you, boo”. But, judy never makes a big thing about the labor involved, or about judy’s fatigue. Judy keeps driving and belting on. For real, we carry one another to the finish line.
Where will judy leave us off? As if anticipating my question, Mac sings an original tune on ukulele, which asks, “How can you miss me if I never leave?” And then, judy’s final number comes as a surprise and a revelation — a simple offering for our radical ritual, “We can lie down, or we can get up and play”.
Mac confesses that judy’s other professed, preferred gender pronoun is performer. And that judy is — a model of virtuosity, sensitivity, craft, epic vision, and deep criticality, as well as complete idiocy, vulnerability, and hot mess. While audience members may not feel equipped to claim “performer” as their pronoun of choice, Mac suggests that we all have access to play.
Play, for Mac, is not framed as weak, frivolous, or naïve. Play is not a means of escaping world, but is a way of engaging it in all its dynamism and complexity, a way of unmaking and re-making world. We see that rigor is also a part of play — subversion is play, resistance is play. Play is also uncomfortable. Sometimes we are called upon to play the white supremacist or the homophobe. Play is a call to step into another’s shoes, to consider the other. Play is a way to imagine and make space for other kinds of being in the world. And Mac, our wise fool-drag queen-dandy powerhouse, is both in the trenches doing that work with us as well as our guide — reminding us of our humanity and leading us through a meaningful act of co-creation.
Towards the end of the show, Mac transports us to the backroom of a sex club in the 80’s, and shares stories of legendary nights and the pleasures of anonymous sex. Queers don’t all look like Ellen, Mac reminds. Some of us are “kinky motherfuckers.” He describes the self-consciousness and the shame in these backrooms, and also the pleasure, desire, and liberation. All mixed up. He describes the profound intimacy and love that can pass between strangers on a dance floor or in the backroom of a sex club.
Dancing to Ray and Mac’s rendition of a homophobic Ted Nugent song, we stage the gay prom we never had as resistance. I danced with Rachel from Brooklyn. We move in an awkward box step, dancing at arms’-length. She tells me she ran into her third grade teacher earlier. We laugh. Mac tells us all to hold on to one another as if the tenderness and closeness of our embrace is a ritual act that could bring about the actual destruction of Ted Nugent. We pull in close, comforting one another, for real, as if our lives depend on it.
In this stranger’s embrace, experiencing a mix of self-consciousness and genuine tenderness, time shrinks. 24 hours starts to seem so small, so short a time to be together, compared to the hugeness of what is happening in the space between us.