In a holiday season divested of familiar comforts and traditions, Taylor Mac reminds us that we have the power to change our perspective and transform our lives. Taylor Mac’s Holiday Sauce… Pandemic! is the 2020 edition of a three-year-old touring show that celebrates the dysfunction of Christmas through music, film, and burlesque. Funny, moving, and thought-provoking, the virtual version of Holiday Sauce has the flavor this December needs, and it's available to stream on demand through January 2.
Holiday Sauce in 2020
A playwright, singer-songwriter, and performance artist, Mac was a 2017 recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship as well as the 2020 International Ibsen Award, with the December 12 performance serving as the kickoff for the award ceremony, reimagined as a digital event after it was postponed in March. Mac’s art resembles avant-garde drag cabaret with an activist bent, as does Mac’s use of the gender-neutral pronoun “judy.” Mac is best known for A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, a critically acclaimed performance that re-visions popular music, musical theater, American history, and the disconnect of the digital era. Seeing A 24-Decade History at the Merriam during PIFA 2018 convinced me that judy is one of the most important voices in contemporary American theater (BSR reviewed parts one and two). I was eager to see the holiday season get the Taylor Mac treatment, and also curious about how Holiday Sauce handles the audience engagement central to judy’s performance style in a virtual format.
Mac did not disappoint. Several days before the show, viewers received a reminder from presenter StanfordLive including cocktail recipes created especially for Holiday Sauce...Pandemic! A drink called Judy’s Garland looked especially appealing, but I poured myself some spiced apple shrub leftover from Michael Solomonov’s virtual Hanukkah cooking class. Then I watched scrolling warnings about the show’s adult content until Holiday Sauce...Pandemic! began.
You’re the boss
A face intricately painted with fruits and vegetables appeared beneath a supersized Carmen Miranda-esque headdress dangling plastic fingers. Mac sat resplendent in this vivid costume on a colorful set all designed to resemble what judy called “a public access show on LSD.” Indeed, this year’s virtual format evoked a bizarro take on a children’s TV show with Mac in the role of a nurturing host who addressed viewers directly, delivering encouragement, life lessons, and jokes between recorded segments featuring music, animation, and silly characters.
Holiday Sauce reminds us that the holidays can be lonely, especially for LGBTQIA+ folks, but we can find sustenance in our chosen families. The show owes its name to a favorite quip from Flawless Sabrina, Mac’s late drag mother: “You’re the boss, applesauce.” Mac explained this means we are in charge of our reality, in that we have the power to transform ourselves and our outlook. This can mean freeing ourselves from limitations imposed by family, religion, society, and self-hatred, from finding love and acceptance outside of blood ties to giving ourselves permission to make art.
Normality and reality
Flawless Sabrina’s influence was crucial to Mac’s development, and Holiday Sauce celebrates her legacy. When she died in 2017, Mac decided to make a show about her disguised as a holiday show. Born Jack Doroshow in South Philadelphia, Flawless Sabrina was a pioneering performer and activist who organized drag pageants all over the United States, beginning in the 1960s. (She is the subject of the excellent 1968 documentary The Queen, streaming on Netflix.) “Normal is a setting on the dryer,” Flawless Sabrina used to say, and “reality is a mass hunch.” Mac demonstrated how to reframe the concepts of “normal” and “reality” in judy’s version of “O Holy Night,” which substitutes lyrics and queer ideas in the Christmas carol to create a tune that celebrates gay culture.
In this version, “divine” means “fabulous.” Angels become fairies, and “holy” refers to bodily orifices. “Sin” is capitalism, the savior is creativity, and “church” is a gay bar, where we meet a new Mother Mary. Riffing on the slang term for a homosexual man, Mac says, “My Mary is a mother and a man.” Mac’s powerful yet funny song concluded with appearances by “queer nativity” characters such as Sexual Consent Santa, the Wise Persons, and a Baby Jesus who pointed out that most religions have a slain hero who comes back from the dead.
“Dig in and help each other”
Other highlights included a recorded musical number from Detroit Queen of the Blues Thornetta Davis, a Christmas tree’s funny monologue performed by Mac collaborator and show designer Machine Dazzle, and an animated sequence set to an original holiday song about homophobia, addiction, sexual abuse, toxic masculinity, and other family traumas. Mac offered a welcome chaser to the latter sketch in the form of a celebration of elders in the queer community. Judy spoke over a montage of recordings of “queens” of all genders from all over the world receiving their crown and sash.
This recognition of human persistence, creativity, and community felt especially affirming as 2020 draws to a close. Lest viewers miss its significance, Mac compared COVID to the AIDS epidemic, suggesting that we must “dig in and help each other” in order to make it through, just as previous generations did, because help may not be on the way. Holiday Sauce...Pandemic! succeeds in using the power of song, community, and queer ways of knowing to challenge the heteronormative narrative of the holiday season and carve out spaces for people of all races, genders, sexual orientations, and identities and their understandings of love, joy, belonging, and expression. Just like judy’s mentor Flawless Sabrina, Taylor Mac uses performance to inspire others to be their best and truest selves, and that’s strong sauce worthy of a toast.
Image description: Taylor Mac sits in an ornate red-upholstered wooden chair, legs kicking irreverently over one armrest. Mac is wearing strappy black platform stilettos, knee-socks printed with nutcracker figures, a sort of stole made out of a fake green pig with an apple in its mouth, and a large, snaky headdress that is equal parts Christmas wreath and Medusa. Mac is laughing joyously and wears green lipstick.
What, When, Where
Taylor Mac’s Holiday Sauce… Pandemic! By Taylor Mac, music directed by Matt Ray, and produced by Pomegranate Arts. Presented over livestream by StanfordLive on December 12, 2020, and available to stream on demand through Saturday, January 2, 2021. For more information, visit StanfordLive’s website or the Eventbrite ticket page.