Punch and Judy

Taylor Mac, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: 1900–1950s, 2015. Performance view, New York Live Arts, New York, January 20, 2015. Taylor Mac (right). Photo: Ian Douglas.

“MY GENDER IS PERFORMER,” a bedazzling Taylor Mac announced to a sold-out audience at New York Live Arts. “My pronoun,” he twinkled, “is judy.” Looking like the love-child of Rosalind Russell and a leopard-print-obsessed Lubavitcher, with eyes lashed like Venus flytraps, Mac launched into a six-hour marathon performance of songs and stories of the 1900s to the 1950s—a preview of sorts of his forthcoming opus, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music. Written by Mac, the show reads music history to double as a chronicle of sex, repression, expression, and community, and “to remind people what they’ve dismissed, forgotten, or buried.” In the case of pop music, Mac reveals that what has been dismissed, forgotten, or buried are the traumas—both personal and political—from which some of the world’s best-loved songs have emerged. In 2016, he is slated to perform over a century’s worth of them in a twenty-four-hour event.

Taylor Mac is a master performer, riveting storyteller, and charismatic, otherworldly creature, dressed to the tens in artist/designer Machine Dazzle’s magnificent metamorphic glitz. From New York’s Jewish Tenements at the turn-of-the-century through the World Wars and up through the 1950s, Mac moved through history one decade an hour, schooling us in the knife twists at the heart of his songbook. He tells us that Teddy Roosevelt had the dissenting hit “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be A Soldier” rewritten to “It’s Time for Every Boy To Be A Soldier,” which helped sell Americans on World War I. Years later the man who purportedly wrote “You Are My Sunshine,” Paul Rice, sold the rights for thirty five dollars to pay for his dying wife’s medical expenses, and Jimmie Davis, who bought them, used his millions in royalties to underwrite his campaign for Governorship of Louisiana on a platform to preserve segregation in schools.

Not every lesson was a heavy one, and for all of the dark undertones, the show was face-wrenchingly funny. Mac jauntily deconstructed “Keep the Home Fires Burning” to re-canonize it as an early lesbian feminist anthem. (Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that he gave the plaintive ditty a good literary fisting.) Over the course of the afternoon and into the evening, Mac’s audience sang, danced, and performed alongside him as more wars erupted, and millions of people continued to be killed or marginalized in the name of rancid ideologies. Though this segment of A 24-Decade History took us just up to the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, it was no mystery to anyone what the future would hold. The pink triangles of the prison camps will surely reappear in three acts or so, and the band will play on.

Performance legend Ethyl Eichelberger once joked that under the Reagan administration, he only received NEA funding because he studied hairdressing at the beauty parlor Nancy Reagan had installed—“at your expense”—in The White House. In Obama’s America, the models for aggravated artistic survival have mellowed, even here in New York, though we live more and more in the withering shadows of empty glass high-rises. “I’m not trying to bite the hand that feeds me, NYLA,” Mac purred after criticizing the theater’s corporate-bunker-moderne aesthetic, “I’m just trying to get a little lipstick on it.” Throughout, he extols the virtues of audience discomfort, upending the safety of the fourth wall to include us all—sometimes willingly, other times awkwardly—in the act. Once upon a time, Hibiscus dropped acid, Divine ate dog shit, and Leigh Bowery spouted douche water from his ass onto his audience. Though nodding to such predecessors in style, judy’s drag is not anarchic; it’s diplomatic. Mac doesn’t terrorize. He reaches across the aisle, at times towing an unexpectedly therapeutic line for the crowd. “This is a performance-art concert,” he assured us more than once, “which means that everything you’re feeling is appropriate.”

Taylor Mac, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: 1900–1950s, 2015. Performance view, New York Live Arts, New York, January 20, 2015. Taylor Mac. Photo: Ian Douglas.

Toward the end of the show, Mac sat center stage and talked about the origins of his ambitious project. Growing up gay in Stockton, California, he explained, “I knew there was a Queer history, I just had no proof of it.” As a teenager, he heard about the AIDS Walk in San Francisco, but rather than seek sponsorship from family, friends, and neighbors, he used his paper-route money to sign up. He’d never met an out gay man in his life until the day he arrived in the city and saw thousands of them walking together. Some were visibly sick, others pushed their dying lovers in wheelchairs, but their rage, Mac remembered, remained powerful. Mac’s inevitable exhaustion and deterioration when he performs the full production of 24-Decade History is intended honor the exhaustion and deterioration of the gay community at the moment when the virus was ravaging so many of their lives.

The sharpest undercurrents of Mac’s 24-Decade History uncover “the popular” as a cultural force that cuts both ways. The center is a place of power, of presence. It is also, when unchallenged and unchecked, a site of surrender. Heteronormalizing, as Mac reminded his audience again and again, is not the same as equality; the most radical act is that of uncompromised being. “There’s something to me cowardly about taking Truvada instead of using a condom,” activist/playwright Larry Kramer said in an interview last year. “You’re taking a drug that is poison to you, and it has lessened your energy to fight, to get involved, to do anything.” To which writer Bran Addison replied: “Cheers, Mr. Kramer: I can’t wait to show my cowardice when, should it ever happen, the man I am dating discloses that he is positive and I have the pleasure of saying, ‘So what?’ ” Over time, generation gaps inevitably open and may never be filled. Mac’s enterprise—the re-injection of memory into the mainstream—inoculates against ignoring or forgetting what has been lost as well as what has been gained.

At one point, Mac asked everyone over fifty to stand up and dance; everyone younger was asked to choose one of those standing, look at them, and copy their moves. “Apparently in America,” he explained, “we don’t see people over fifty.” As the music played, the audience danced together, some shyly and others with abandon, until the song came to an end. After all, the show had to go on.

Taylor Mac’s six-decade marathon performance from A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: 1900-1950s ran on January 25 at New York Live Arts as part of The Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival.