Taylor Mac’s “24-Decade History of Popular Music,” a concert event that devotes an hour per decade of American history, has been called ‘ambitious’ and ‘epic.’ But after watching the three-decade preview being performed through next weekend at New York Live Arts, I decided that those words do not do justice to the cultural goals of this theatrical piece. There’s a sensationalized and egocentric tone about “ambitious.” The work becomes about the artist, about his/her career aspirations, and the imagined work s/he may or may not invest in. It suggests that the work isn’t necessary or warranted– that the artist has gone above and beyond what is called for, or what they are usually capable of. It ignores or minimizes the goal of the piece.
That’s not to say that Mac, music director Matt Ray, backup vocalist Amber Gray (I knew she looked familiar!), and their band aren’t creating something rigorous or difficult. Putting together three-hours of performance material is hard enough, let alone twenty-four. But the focus of this event is not Mac’s stamina as a performer, or how long we the audience will fare with our sleeping bags and toiletries. The concert is an act of historiographical rewriting. It examines how American history has been passed down to us and what type of narrative it depicts. It asks us to imagine other narratives, ones that are left out of traditional education. Mac relates the inspiration for the piece in performance, starting with his childhood in Stockton, California, where homosexuality, queerness, and gay history were never part of his family discourse or institutional learning. He discusses the first time he ever witnessed being part of a group of openly gay men at an AIDS walk and the overwhelming sense of belonging he felt surrounded by men who were themselves or were with others deteriorated by the disease. How has our country existed for two and a half centuries with queerness and only in the past few decades made steps to acknowledge its presence? How do we revise our perception of the American experience, dating back to 1776, to include rather than ignore or alienate the gay experience? Mac’s concert legitimately performs this revision. It’s not ambitious. It’s merited. It’s called for. And it’s absolutely essential.
Mac’s joy of performing emanates from his sparkling persona, usually covered in even more sparkling attire designed by longtime costume collaborator Machine Dazzle. The performance I attended celebrated music from 1900-1930. The first decade largely focused on music from immigrant Jewish tenement life. Mac enters dressed a glittery, conservative black dress bedecked with a large Star of David and a oversized velvety cheetah-print shtreimel hat held up by an umbrella handle. He briefly describes the flux of Jewish immigration into the United States as a result of pogroms in Eastern Europe and imitates living conditions in the tenements by inviting the entire audience to sit onstage. Audience participation is used pointedly, working the discomfort and falseness of the interacting into the narrative he constructs. The 1910’s bring a slight change of pace, introducing an era of romanticism and heroism that culminates in World War I’s bitter disillusionment. The 1910’s and 1920’s segments approach the war from a queer perspective– women on the domestic front and male soldiers abroad find strength in each other’s shared experiences and develop relationships that mold new definitions for love in America.
Mac’s narration functions best when he relates historical facts, personal observations, and deconstructive criticism. Sometimes his fictional set-ups, like that of two veterans confronting an emotional rift in their relationship, fall into cliches and I wished the stories were a little more fully developed, if not substituted with more historical re-tellings or experiential insight. However, Mac is always entertaining, witty, and wonderfully human. Never haranguing and always taking delight in the theater experience, his purpose is to leave you a little happier and a little more learned than when you came in.
NYLA‘s performances of 24-Decade History of Popular Music are sold out (wait list available), but keep an eye out for future performances from these and other decades, as well as the ultimate 24-hour marathon to be performed in 2016.