Creating community, 12 hours at a time

The realness of Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, Part II, 1896 to Present’

4 minute read
I never even mentioned Machine Dazzle's costumes! This one, if you can't guess, announced the decade spanning 1956 to 1966. (Photo by Wendy Rosenfield.)
I never even mentioned Machine Dazzle's costumes! This one, if you can't guess, announced the decade spanning 1956 to 1966. (Photo by Wendy Rosenfield.)

I have two regrets about Taylor Mac’s performance of judy’s (Mac’s pronoun) Pulitzer-finalist show A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: A Radical Fairy Realness Ritual. The first is that I wish I had been able to attend Part I (though I do have a recording of it and appreciated reading Cameron Kelsall’s review). The second is that I wish it was performed in one 24-hour block so I could have enjoyed the full experience.

That’s it; I just wanted more. After 12 hours, my husband and I were released around 12:30am, Broad Street still bustling with Saturday-night revelers and heavy machinery cleaning up detritus from PIFA’s street fair. After journeying with Mac from 1896 to the present, we debated whether the time we spent inside the Merriam Theater’s cocoon (has anyone ever called that place a cocoon?) seemed more like three or five hours.

We both agreed that the day felt a whole lot like transformation. The show is messy and imperfect, and Mac often reminds judy’s audience, “Everything you’re feeling is appropriate.” Don’t like the message? That’s okay, you’re free to disagree. Are you offended? You are allowed to be offended!

Tomato-vegetable soup for the soul

Sure, that sounds like a cop-out to me, too, even as I write it. And I agree with all the flaws Kelsall mentions in his review of Part II. But it works, and that’s a testament to the environment Mac creates, a kind of radical empathy inviting the audience to let down their guard and get as vulnerable as Mac and the “Dandy Minions,” Mac’s cadre of performers/assistants culled from Philly’s queer and arts communities.

Somehow, my guard was up when I first entered the Merriam. My husband and I both felt it, and neither of us knew why. Was it because we were so obviously straight and middle-aged among a sea of young, queer fabulousness? Perhaps it was the feeling of being a visible minority, a challenge to the privilege we take for granted every day.

No matter. Mac says judy’s performances aren’t “safe spaces.” But about half an hour in, as we all screeched sounds from a Jewish tenement — babies crying, siblings fighting — at Mac, who crooned Irving Berlin’s heartbreaking “All Alone,” highlighting the interiority of the sentiment, my defenses dissolved.

Mac fed us — literally (soup, and later dinner) and spiritually — through World War I and Teddy Roosevelt’s outraged response to a song called “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier”; to the Roaring ‘20s (with the help of Philly’s own Martha Graham Cracker); to the Great Depression, where streamers from the last decade’s festivities hung from the rafters, glinting sadly; right on through the civil rights era and into the Stonewall Inn.

Dancing ourselves clean

Our son joined us for this section and took notes so he’d remember to listen to Patti Smith’s “Birdland” and Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” at home. And it’s still hard for me to describe my emotions around Mac’s reclaiming Ted Nugent’s “Snakeskin Cowboy.” Mac says the NRA board member and friend of Trump proudly admitted his song was about the joy of “fag bashing” (Mac’s description, not mine); judy sang it as a torchy tribute to boys who know how to steal a scene.

The Cold War, Reagan-style. Well, Taylor Mac-style, but where's the lie? (Photo by Wendy Rosenfield.)
The Cold War, Reagan-style. Well, Taylor Mac-style, but where's the lie? (Photo by Wendy Rosenfield.)

During the song, Mac asked everyone in the audience to find a same-sex dance partner, and as the woman in front of me took my hands and I put my head on her shoulder, she said, “This is kind of strange, isn’t it?”

She had just arrived. I told her it would seem a lot less strange if she’d been here for the show’s previous six hours. She seemed to relax, and then responded, “It’s been a long time since I slow-danced with anyone.”

I looked over at my husband, whose dance partner was a younger man several inches shorter than him. They swayed gently, hands clasped together, chatting amiably, and there was such tenderness in the room it made me catch my breath. Consider that: In Mac’s hands, a Ted Nugent song became an opportunity to express kindness and unity. If that doesn’t capture the magic of theater, I don’t know what does.

And it went on, as Mac entered the era of judy’s (and my) coming of age, with sections dedicated to the AIDS crisis and the radical lesbian years with their many womyn’s music festivals. As Kelsall notes, Mac’s own music had some serious competition, but the show is structured so judy loses one musician every hour and is ultimately left standing “all alone” in a room full of strangers.

The message I was left with — the message I needed to hear — was that we are free to construct our own reality. In this country, where border guards are authorized to rip children from their parents’ arms; where our president can meet one of the world’s most brutal dictators with smiles and a Hollywood-style promotional film; where, as Mac showed through song, our popular culture has mostly bolstered the status quo — for better or for worse, we can choose not to buy in. We can choose to turn hatred on its head.

As one of Mac’s 1986-to-1996 picks proclaims, “People Have the Power.” Much thanks to judy for the reminder.

What, When, Where

A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, Part II: 1896-Present. Conceived and co-directed by Taylor Mac, Niegel Smith co-directed. Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts. June 9, 2018, at the Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or pifa.org.​​

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