“Nostalgia is the last refuge of the racist,” Taylor Mac said at some point early on in Chapter 2 of judy’s four-part performance piece, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music.
That chapter covered the years 1836 to 1896, and the moral urgency of the first half centered on slavery and the subjugation of Black Americans. Since the work is less about extolling the virtues of America through song than about chronicling how music itself reinforces ideologies of oppression, there were more than a few moments when Mac interrupts the flow of judy’s own narrative. (That is Mac’s preferred pronoun, a choice judy finally addressed in the middle of Chapter 3.)
“Let’s stop this song,” Mac said of “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” a tune judy considers to be an early form of slacktivism. “These are shitty songs. No wonder it took over 200 years — you’d think the anti-slavery movement would inspire punk or goth. Instead, we had to wait until the queers felt ennui about capitalism.”
Playfully but forcefully denouncing white passivity and the white-savior complex, Mac is unafraid to challenge audiences or fill them with an acute sense of discomfort over the shortcomings of self-congratulatory bourgeois liberalism. A 24-Decade History‘s substantial length — even broken up into four chunks, it’s still a six-hour marathon each night — is a sustained assault on liberal pieties from the socially-conscious left flank. At multiple points across all chapters, Mac states that things “go on a lot longer than they should,” which pokes a little bit fun at judy’s own stage antics but also judy’s unflagging determination to get a point across. Popular music is hideously fucked up a lot of the time, this show says, and it takes a “Radical Faerie realness ritual” to set it right.
Still, it’s a raucous carnival of the grotesque and the libidinal, and the audience’s excitement seldom wanes for a second. Part of that it because every hour — which corresponds to a decade, and involves a costume change, and a reduction in the number of musicians on stage — is full of one-off visual delights, from abolitionist silhouettes to an “urban bushwoman” pole-dancing to 19th-century spirituals in a diaphanous dress.
When it’s time to treat the Civil War, the South gets the brunt of Mac’s wrath. (“No, your soul won’t pass through the Southland,” judy insists to the rebellious dead, minutes before encouraging the audience to engage in a slow-motion bitch-slap battle and judy’s theatrical assistants, the “Dandy Minions,” tear down Mac’s costume designer, Machine Dazzle, who’s dressed as Robert E. Lee.)
Chapter Three, in particular, involved mass migrations throughout the theater: Hundreds of people filled the stage to represent emigration from Eastern Europe after a series of pogroms, every male-identified individual between ages 14 and 40 went up to play World War I soldiers, and Mac later invited all the people of color in the mezzanine and balcony to take over the central section of the orchestra. During the 1946-56 decade, invited the white queers to join them as urban gentrifiers fleeing suburban oppression.
The obvious subtext can be very uncomfortable for anyone but top-tier extroverts. But during the show’s 12-hour middle half, the real target was conservatives and their occasionally absurd beliefs, the power of which shines through during practiced anecdotes that unspool like spontaneous tirades. Raised in Stockton, Mac was brought up in the Christian Science faith. At one point, judy shared a story about judy’s mother praying for help during the 1970s oil shocks, and when a random stranger brought them a jerrican of gas, “we drove home smug.”
“Christian Science was the fastest-growing religion,” Mac said while singing of its founder, Mary Baker Eddy. “Today, it’s Mormonism. Actually, it’s secularism — but that doesn’t count, so the world looks like it’s filling up with crazy people when actually it’s filling up with people who don’t base their lives off a fantasy novel.”
Fighting against the recommendation “not to be political,” Mac connects theatrical producers who offer unsolicited advice with a late-19th-century figure judy simply calls “Mother.” Mother’s insistence on apolitical politeness is just a ruse for upholding the white-supremacist, patriarchal status quo, of course — but after hammering that point home, the evening took a bizarre and wonderful trip to Mars for a rendition of The Mikado.
Executed under ultraviolet light and with weird synthesizer effects, it was a fun romp meant to sever the giddy joy of Gilbert and Sullivan from their crude orientalism. However, if there was one moment when Mac overstepped, it was then. It’s not as if the world only just came to its senses about The Mikado‘s ickier side, after all; the British government banned productions of it in the early 20th century for fear of giving offense to visiting Japanese dignitaries. But the Day-Glo colors, vocoder Chipmunk vocals, and general sense of tightly orchestrated anarchy won out.
The audience mostly got it — mostly. During Chapter 1, a number of patrons who looked like Curran season-ticket holders left after a few hours, apparently not having realized what they were getting into. And Mac’s tendency to pick on random people for random tasks can also cause a little confusion. Mac selected me and my boyfriend to play the “towelboy gays” during The Mars-kado. Our “role,” such as it was, was to sit under a blanket the entire time. It was crinkly, translucent plastic, so we could see through it just fine, but we didn’t know if or when to take it off — Do you want to get yelled at from the stage for disobeying? I do not — and a ghoul one row behind us muttered and loud-whispered for 45 straight minutes about how we were blocking the view, as if the whole thing had been our idea.
I silenced the ghoul.
Mac silenced himself, too. Not every hour-decade runs to exactly 60 minutes, but the last two decades of Chapter Two were noticeably short, as if four to eight songs were cut. Chapter Three had the most energy — and it ran long. It opened with klezmer music and a costume with a Jewish-gypsy headpiece whose mildly un-P.C. nature Mac expounded upon before launching into crowd pleasers like “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Judy’s habit of juxtaposing a gentle singsong with gravelly, Beatrice Arthur-like zingers is a winning strategy. So is the food service. The Dandy Minions, who remind me of the disciples in Godspell, scurried throughout, at one point organizing a soup kitchen during the Depression. (Yes, the entire audience ate soup. The World War I soldiers took swigs from a bottle of rum, too.)
Of the three most madcap moments, one had to be Machine Dazzle and eight or so exhibitionists dropping trou at the audience every time Mac sung the word moon in “By the Light of the Silvery Moon.” Another was an extended foray into the iconography of lesbian fisting. And, as the war ended, “Happy Days Are Here Again,” turned into a theater-wide balloon bash, reprised at various points through the following four hours.
The tender moments grew tenderer, too. A sweetly lugubrious rendition of “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” brought me to tears, as its lyrics don’t even sound that wistful in O Brother, Where Art Thou? Later, Mac invited people under 15 and over 80 to the stage to swing dance, but when he got all the straight guys between 18 and 30 up there to mime fellatio, the audience’s applause achieved maximum thunderousness.
Mac’s costume changes — which Machine Dazzle executes off-stage, behind a screen, or in plain sight — grew even more outlandish. Each look tends to have layers that a given decade will reveal, from a bedazzled yarmulke during 1896 to a World War II fighter plane dress to the Mister Potato-head hiding in the white-picket fence skirt Mac wears during the 1950s. Closing at the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll — “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Put a Spell on You” — Mac reminded everyone that the evening’s theme was the emasculation of toxic masculinity, and that “identity is the subplot, but never the point.”
“Part of the show is a wish for how the world could be,” judy said. “Part of it is a manifestation.” And this manifestation, uncategorizable though it may be, is almost certainly destined to enter the pantheon of American theater.