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Taylor Mac’s 24-Hour Concert Does Important Cultural Work

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.

Photo by Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

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.

Photo by Sara Krulwich/NYT

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.

Our Picks for the Public Theater’s Under The Radar Festival

The Under the Radar Festival, which recruits the best new theater projects from around the world and houses them at The Public Theater for two event-filled weeks, is officially underway and we are thrilled to be covering some of the festival’s most anticipated shows. For theater artists and non-practitioners alike, the festival is a chance to discover new styles and structures being explored outside our community’s borders and fuel our local creative momentum. It’s an exciting chance to see international artists exchange their work and even to discover what ties the global theater community together. This is the third year that we’ve covered UTR, and we are always delightfully surprised to find how much we can learn about our own life and culture from foreign artists.

Tickets for UTR’s events are only $20-25. Learn more about these works and other offerings at UTR’s Program.

Photo by Ligia Jardim

O Jardim (Brazil’s Companhia Hiato )

Many of this year’s shows are experimenting with structure and style to playfully reflect on memory and its effects on history, identity, and relationships. O Jardim is perhaps the most innovative of the works, using a complex and thrillingly exact trio of scenes which play simultaneously to three separate sections of the audience. Each scene portrays a different generation of one family and how subsequent generations experience the recollected lives of their elders.

Photo by Mitch Dean

The Orpheus Variations (Deconstructive Theatre Collective)

We reviewed this piece back when it premiered at HERE Arts Center and were frankly astounded by it. It accomplishes a magnificent feat– it films the play as it is performed and project the astounding and quite unexpected results on a screen behind the actors. A beautiful, simple, and smart adaptation of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, Deconstructive Theatre Collective manages to create a multi-layered piece that uses the modal differences between live performance and film to reflect on memory, loss, and love. Catch it tonight (1/10) at La MaMa. It’s sure to be worthwhile!

 

The Triumph of Fame (Switzerland’s Marie-Caroline Hominal)

Choreographer Marie-Caroline Hominal creates an individual theatrical piece, bringing an audience of one to a discreet backstage location with a piece that blends the boundaries between spectator and performer. Each encounter lasts only 15 minutes and incorporates various performance mediums surrounding the text of Petrarch’s “i Trionfi.” If you ever wanted more out of the one-on-ones in Sleep No More, The Triumph of Fame should definitely be on your list.

Photo Courtesy of JACK

Ike at Night (USA’s Ikechukwu Ufomadu)

Late-night talk show hosts are a dime a dozen (aren’t they all white men named Jimmy at this point?). Which is why Ufomadu’s take on the talk-show format, straight from a sold-out run in Brooklyn,  should be a fascinating, fresh, and entertaining phenomenon to watch!

Photo by Graeme Braidwood

Stan’s Cafe (UK’s The Cardinals)

Three cardinals travel the world on a mission to broaden biblical knowledge using puppet theater. But when their puppets go missing, they must improvise their own show, comically covering biblical scenes and Middle East relationships dating from the Crusades. Given the fact that world-Muslim relationships are constantly in the news (most recently under the microscope of the Charlie Hebdo attacks), we’re sure this piece will only gain relevancy and humor with time.

Photo Credit: Kevin Yatarola

A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: 1900s-1950s (USA’s Taylor Mac)

Taylor Mac is something of a theater prophet. His performance in Good Person of Szechwan first turned us on to his glorious message of a theater of inclusion, community, and gender-bending elegance. This concert is only part of a 24-hour concert series presenting music from every decade in the United States’s history as a nation. Mac’s experimentation with long-form theater aims to bring audiences together with a uniquely vulnerable physical experience. Not only should it be a great experiment in long-form theater, but also it should be incredibly fun to see Mac’s joyous celebration of music.

 

The Good Person of Szechwan at La Mama

Okay, okay. So lemme just start by saying that I had a semester-long love affair with Good Person and that Bertolt Brecht is a rather scatter-brained, unorganized, ridiculous playwright WHO SHAPED THE WAY I THINK ABOUT THEATER IN EVERY WAY SHAPE AND FORM.

Now, Brecht is tricky. Because if you read his theory and essays on the theater, his basic aim is to completely alienate his audience from the play. This gist of it is that the audience should never be sucked into the “reality” of the play. To use some more culturally charged vocabulary, we must resist molding the audience member into a passive consumer of media, ideas, or representations of reality. Rather, audiences must continuously be reminded of the construction of the play and be estranged from it. No catharsis here, buddy. Brecht terms his vision of the theater, “epic theater.” Some ways of doing this are:

a) making the technicals of the theater (costumes, scenery, scene changes, etc.) transparent to the audience instead of the traditional art of making the theater as realist as possible

b) foregoing the concept of a traditional hero or protagonist and making every character one that you critique and feel quite moved AGAINST

c) letting the audience judge for themselves what the “moral” of the play is, usually rather explicitly with a finale courtroom scene that addresses the audience as jury.

All of this, Brecht argues, makes a ACTIVE theatregoer who responds to what they see on stage and apply it to the real world. Y’know, instead of leaving it all in happystageland.

La Mama’s new production of The Good Person of Szechuan was really just experiment, folksy theater at its finest. Exciting, entrancing musical numbers. Hilarious comedic acting. Relevance to modern day society. Ideas and conflicts that will leave you and your friends talking more than just a few minutes over dinner. I, unfortunately, went alone, which resulted in an awkward moment when the lights came up at intermission and I was staring at my neighbor with a huge smile on my face because I was so darn happy!

If anything, one could accuse this Good Person of being too entertaining, of sweeping us off our feet, if we want to make Brecht into some kind of grumpy, aesthetic alien man. Which he’s not. So you do the math.

In Good Person, the gods appear in China on a quest to find as many “good” people as possible. They are given lodging by a prostitute named Shen Te. As a reward, the gods give Shen Te enough money to leave her prostitution days behind her and buy a tobacco shop to make an honest living. Because she is know for her kindness and charity, the new shopkeeper is assailed by figures from her past and the poor of the community, who take advantage of her and leave her worse off than she started. Not to mention a love interest who, don’t ya know, is using her for her newfound status.

Shen Te’s solution is to cross-dress as her ‘cousin’ Shui Ta, who lays down the law and gets rid of the vagabonds and manipulators in Shen Te’s shop. Eventually, Shui Ta gains enough power to use the poor of the community as factory laborers. Shui Ta’s factory becomes very successful, but partly because of his cruel treatment and the low wages of his workers.

How can a good person exist in a system where one must always fend for oneself? How can we do good for ourselves without harming the welfare of others?

When the gods are confronted with this dilemma, they state that they do not meddle in the business affairs of men. Afterall, what does business have to do with morality?

What? Did I hear you say that this parable-esque story is ripe with tons of relevant ideas and interesting, complex discussions about class, gender, and morality?

And can we just talk about how incredible Taylor Mac is? Just a flawless human being with grace and beauty enough to pull off a baby bump in 6 inch heels while belting ballad. His cross-gender portrayal of Shen Te/Shui Ta always supercedes parody. Instead he fills her with genuine struggle and conflict. I couldn’t help feeling that despite the bald head, the drag makeup and costume, the outline of his genitals against his slip, and the awkward baby bump, there was no disputing the fact that Shen Te was absolutely beautiful in her struggle for goodness.

 

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