Taylor Mac: Queer American Artist-Shaman-Historian of the Century. Make That Two Centuries.
The acclaimed actor and musician is about to perform a 24-hour-long queer history of American popular music. In a single take.
At the beginning of the 24th hour of Taylor Mac’s monumental “24-Decade History of Popular Music,” the “queer womb” of pink fabric that had stretched across the entire performance space at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn became Taylor’s dress for the finale. It was as if we’d been gathered under the performer’s loins the whole time, I thought.
It was an appropriate climax, given that Mac had already appeared that night—the eighth of eight three-hour concerts, each hour corresponding to a decade—in a garment shaped like a giant labia (honoring the Lesbian Avengers of the 1990s), a headpiece of skulls raining down tears (to symbolize the AIDS epidemic), a floor-length coat made of cassette tapes from the Eighties, a flannel-and-denim homage to the lesbian fashion of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, and, at times, nothing at all.
“This show is not universal,” Taylor said from the stage. “Deal with it.”
This weekend, the entire twenty-four hour show—one hour for each decade from 1776 to 2016—will somehow, some way, be performed in its entirety by Mac and an ensemble of musicians, guests, and “dandy minions.”
Food will be provided, and hammocks to sleep in. The audience is requested to stay for the whole time. It will be, Mac said, “a radical faerie realness ritual,” alluding to the queer subculture which formed in the late 1970s and has since produced some of the most innovative gender-bending artists of the last decades, including John Cameron Mitchell, Justin Vivian Bond, and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.
Taylor Mac, too, emerges from that world. Born in 1973 and raised in rural California, Mac emerged in New York’s queer, downtown arts scene in the late 1990s and early 2000s—around the same time as Mitchell’s Hedwig and Bond’s Kiki and Herb broke through.
In some ways, Taylor is a walking contradiction: a subversive nonconformist who has won mainstream accolades (Guggenheim Fellowship, various grants); an actor in both his own unclassifiable shows and traditional productions of Shakespeare and Brecht.
I’ve seen nine hours of Mac’s genre-defying durational performance—parts cabaret, circus, interactive dance party, ritual, burlesque, concert, history lesson, drag show, monologue, and performance art—and, not surprisingly, I don’t know where to begin describing it.
What Taylor Mac has brought to this warehouse in DUMBO, after years of workshopping it around the country, is a subversive counter-history of the United States, told through the prism of popular music. It’s like Howard Zinn in a tutu. Playing the banjo.
And it is, as Mac has intended, a community event. First, “everyone” in the downtown queer performance scene seemed to be either in the show or attending it; I could name-drop the filmmakers, actors, producers, and performers who I spotted, but that seems antithetical to the communal spirit of the event.
Second, Mac frequently involves the audience in the performance—sometimes uncomfortably, as when, to simulate the white flight of the 1950s, Mac demanded that white audience members move out of certain sections of the space. Or when Mac “seduced” one of the straight male attendees to make out. Or when we had to throw ping-pong balls at each other to simulate the battles of World War I.
And then there’s the sheer endurance of it. Three hours is a long time to watch a single performance, especially with no intermission, occasional meanders into the byways of American history (I’m not sure I needed thirty minutes of a baby boomer couple lost in a swamp, or attacked by zombies, or whatever that was), and what Taylor has called the “benefits of imperfection.”
I can only imagine what twenty-four hours will be like. (A few additional tickets were just released here.)
I wasn’t the only one feeling that way. At the eighth show, I sat next to Hunter Canning, an actor best known for starring in the underground-hit web series The Outs. “I went through it at Taylor’s show,” Canning said. “I learned about (queer) history, laughed, cried and always at the edge of my seat. Yes, sometimes moments would go on too long…. and Taylor would remind us that ‘perfection is for assholes,’ and I couldn’t agree more. It’s the unpredictability that’s exciting and even dangerous at times.”
In a press statement, Mac said that the concept of the event dates to “an AIDS action I attended in 1987… What has stuck with me from that day was experiencing a community coming together—in the face of such tragedy and injustice—and expressing their rage (and joy at being together) via music, dancing, chanting and agency.
“Not only was the community using itself to destroy an epidemic but the activists were also using a disease, their deterioration, and human imperfection as a way to aid their community.”
The history that Taylor tells is not an objective one. For example, the 1836-66 segment included a “smackdown”—complete with faux-wrestling staging—between Stephen Foster and Walt Whitman, for the title of ‘Father of American Song.’ Needless to say, the queer Whitman defeated the straight, occasionally racist and sexist Foster. It wasn’t a fair fight.
Then again, when is history ever fair? Mac’s radical, queer retelling of the American story serves as a counterpoint to the one most of us probably heard in high school.
And there are some real insights that Mac has uncovered. The anti-Mexican context of the “Zoot Suit Riot” was juxtaposed with Japanese internment camps. The well-meaning, patronizing white-savior narratives of Abolitionist anthems were contrasted with songs written by actual slaves. And then there’s that bit about “Yankee Doodle Dandy” being a British song meant to insult the masculinity of the American rebels.
Then there’s Taylor Mac’s ungodly talent itself—the perfect pitch, the radical sensibility, and of course, the stamina. (I just kvetched about sitting for three hours—Taylor’s planning to sing, prance, dance, and pose for twenty-four.) It’s easy to focus too much on the meaning of this alternative history of America, and too little on the band, the choreography, and the arrangement of over 240 songs by Mac’s collaborator, Matt Ray.
“And the costumes—can we talk about how amazing [costume designer] Machine Dazzle is?” Canning asked me. “During WWI Taylor was wearing a barbed wire hotdog dress. Horrific American pride slathered in ketchup and mustard. That about sums it up for me.”
Indeed, having seen hundreds of Broadway shows, drag shows, performance art events, Burning Man costumes, and Fashion Week extravaganzas, I can safely say that I have never seen anything like the looks that Machine Dazzle—that’s their name—has concocted for the 24-Decade History.
The costumes evoke eras without quoting them (think of the satire of 1950s Americana that serves as the cover image for the show, of Taylor in a headdress of 3-D glasses), providing a visual queering of American history to accompany Taylor Mac’s verbal and musical ones. The reveals tell the story.
We all know, or should know, that there have been hidden gay, lesbian, and transgender subcultures throughout American history, from the molly-houses of the 1800s to the ballroom scene of the 1980s. (My colleague Tim Teeman just reviewed a new art exhibit about the secret gay history of New York.) There have also been LGBT-heavy musical forms from the Broadway musical to contemporary dance pop.
But what if American history is, itself, queer—that is, consumed by questions of borderlines, intersections, gender, hierarchy, and power? What if behind every MLK was a Bayard Rustin, behind every Whitman a Peter Doyle? What, I mean to ask, if Taylor Mac is right?