In Which I Gush And Process The Wonder Of 'A 24-Decade History Of Popular Music'

In Which I Gush And Process The Wonder Of 'A 24-Decade History Of Popular Music'

 Photo: Jay Barmann

Photo: Jay Barmann

by Jay Barmann
Originally published on SFist

A show that takes 24 hours to perform is by its very conception an act of love and sacrifice — though the cynics who refuse to see it may write it off as indulgent. Such was the full cycle of four six-hour performances by the brilliant Taylor Mac over the last week, and those with avid theater lovers in their Facebook feeds are probably already tired of hearing that A 24-Decade History Of Popular Music was "amazing" and "impossible to describe," as my friends surely are. But it is both of those things, and as I wrote after seeing Chapter II last Sunday, which covered the years 1836 to 1896, Mac's wit and passion shimmer throughout this thing, buoyed by the communal experience he creates around the performances themselves. No one is made is to sit through all of these six-hour chapters — just as they weren't sitting for many uninterrupted stretches during the single 24-hour performance Mac did in New York in October — but rather everyone is pretty much forced to periodically stand, participate, change seats, and/or come on stage and become a piece of the show.

It was, I think, even for Mac, special to be able to stage this show in a venue as grand and big as The Curran — he quipped during Friday's Chapter III, "They wouldn't let us do this show in a real theater in New York. They put the queers in the basement back there." But given the reception it's received, and the fact that the show is already booked for another set of six-hour performances at UCLA in March, Mac seems destined for ever bigger stages, whether it's with a different version of this project, or something new and less daunting of a commitment for theatergoers.

I wish I hadn't had that fear of my own stamina, though — and after all, haven't I been to dozens of music festivals that go on far longer than six hours, with far less of a life-affirming, art-affirming, dazzling payoff than this one? But I did, and the length likely scared off some true lovers of theater and the queer arts, which is a shame. I have to agree with New York Times critic Wesley Morris, who said after the 24-hour performance that it was "one of the great experiences of my life." When have I ever, and when will I ever again, witness an artist at the top of his game, having imagined and honed this epic piece of hilarious, deviant art over six years or more, sing 246 songs, make me scream with laughter, and monologue at me with ideas and historical narratives both urgent and true?

And how do you even "review" a show that is less of a show than a life's work, and one that clocks in at 12 times the length of a normal show, and transcends both drag and the concert genre?

A few snapshots that are bound to stick with me for many years: the look of goofy joy that spread across the room as a thousand ping-pong balls were hurled in every direction during the "queerest Civil War reenactment in history"; the entire theater filled with a shower of colorful balloons, previously passed out to the audience, as War World I ends and Mac emerges "in the 1920s" singing "Happy Days Are Here Again" (despite the deaths of 16 million people); Mac singing a very moving, quiet version of "Big Rock Candy Mountain" to a rapt audience; the somewhat uncomfortable but at that point totally expected laughter as all of the white people in the audience are asked to move out of the center section (the "inner city") and off to the sides to depict the White Flight of the 1950s, while the people of color were welcomed to take their seats; the Cold War being reenacted with the use of two enormous inflatable penises, one red white and blue, and one red with a USSR hammer and sickle on it, set to David Bowie's "Heroes"; ushering in the era of AIDS with Mac's dark and brooding cover of Suzanne Vega's "Blood Makes Noise" as a hovering set of skulls weeping tinsel sat over his head, like a deathly halo; and Mac being left alone on the stage for the final hour, his tireless musical director Matt Ray finally allowed to rest, with a ukulele and a piano and a shimmering pink gown that descended from the rafters, singing a few of the wordy, witty original songs that he saved for this decade, which is less about history than about, as he repeatedly put it, "dreaming the culture forward."

Perhaps the most joyous revelation I had over these last 18 hours of his artwork (I had seen parts of Chapter I before, so did not go to the first night's performance) was the simple fact that our sometimes broken culture, such as it is, has Taylor Mac in it. Much the way I walked out of seeing Hamilton on Broadway with a certainty that I had witnessed something excitingly new and canon-izable, I walked out of each six-hour chapter feeling grateful, renewed, utterly converted to Mac's idiosyncratic view of our shared world. He was certainly exhausted, and I was too, and that was the point — having this "history on our backs," and all these songs to remember it by, is inherently exhausting, but there is always more energy in us to dream it forward.

"I am not a teacher," Mac insisted during Sunday's final chapter. "I'm not here to teach you and there are definitely people in this room who know more about pieces of this history than I do. I am a reminder." In the end, as much as he obviously aims to delight and amuse, the theater of Taylor Mac is a deadly serious project about activism, knowledge, and the power of art to heal and motivate us — and a reminder that it can in fact do both of those things.

After 24 hours of Mac's simultaneously terrific trolling of our nation's racist, sexist, homophobic past, and his enduring, infectious optimism, I couldn't help but think that we all should be so lucky to do such work, and in between that work, bare witness to the work of others when it reaches for such great heights. American culture — and LGBTQ culture — needs artful reminders like Mac, and hopefully the reach of his art will only widen over time.

Joking Sunday night about people's fears of death, Mac got slightly spiritual, while never letting go of his humor. "I'm not going anywhere," he promised. "I'll be releasing epic posthumous performances for years after I die. You'll never get rid of me."

Here's hoping.

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