“Sexuality is like performance art,” Taylor Mac said Sunday evening during Chapter 4 of Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music. “There is no failure.”
Chapter 4 started out full of protests, from Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” to Nina Simone’s still-almost-too-hot-to-touch “Mississippi Goddam.” (Assistance from guest vocalists Chavé Alexander and Steffanie Christi’an Mosley kept things rooted in Black performance of Black music.) But the main through-line of that fourth and final segment was a human sexual awakening, as the night covered 1956 through the present. In its entirety, one of A 24-Decade History‘s primary themes, and arguably the thing that keeps the entire experience from being merely a longer version of any old stage production, is Mac’s determination to make white people (and straight people) feel intensely uncomfortable. This time, it was about sexuality as much as it was about race. Mac, a Radical Faerie who uses the deliberately campy pronoun “judy,” won’t let anyone forget that sweaty lovemaking is at the heart of everything.
Hours before the prom during which judy all but forced people to dance with someone of the same gender, Mac invited the white people in the audience to run in exaggerated slow-motion from the center sections of the Curran Theater to symbolize mid-20th century white flight from the cities to the suburbs, several grim-faced Caucasian theater-goers stuck to their guns. (You can’t necessarily identify people by their race in a theater, however lit up. But I’m talking about late-middle-aged dad types who really, really did not want to be there, staring straight ahead while hundreds of people traded seats all around them.)
“Yes, you lied to me all these years,” Simone sings at one point, but the song’s penultimate lines are the real dagger to the heart: “You don’t have to live next to me / Just give me my equality.” In the context of a president who condemns kneeling NFL players while excusing murderous Nazis, White America needs to meditate on the simplicity of Simone’s request and the reasons behind the inexcusable progress toward meeting it.
Mac re-traced the decline and fall of Jim Crow without giving anyone in the audience the license to feel a self-congratulatory Forrest Gump-style sense of having made everything all better. Judy brandished the very seating chart of a proscenium theater as a weapon, mocking the “bourgeois crisis” of having to accept an inferior seat to the one you bought, just because there was now a person of color sitting in it.
Mac promised “public humiliation” to anyone who failed to comply, and while a few voices in the balcony shouted that someone wouldn’t budge, judy let them off pretty easily. But judy’s role is not one of judge. Or, as Mac reminded the audience once again, “I am not a teacher. I am a reminder.” To that end, judy extracted a promise from the audience to listen to Nina Simone’s lyrics.
Viewed in hindsight at long last, A 24-Decade History is nothing like a Great American Novel told in song. It’s not even slyly apocalyptic, like Dan Deacon‘s magisterial album America, which tucks a primal fear of the landscape into electronic-heavy symphonic arrangements, an inversion of Aaron Copland.
The show is too wickedly perverted, for one. Shifting from The Supremes, Curtis Mayfield, and the music of the March on Washington, Mac sidestepped much of the rock idiom by using LGBT civil rights icon Bayard Rustin as the thread to the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, Stonewall, and the entire decade of sexual liberation that followed. Mac can be cheerfully unconcerned with historicity, as when judy said that “All these songs were on the jukebox at Stonewall. … I don’t know that, actually. Some of them were written after.”
That would be a slowed-down version Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” into which arranger Matt Ray snuck a few bars of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” An extended discourse on whose version of the Stonewall riot Mac chooses to believe — the one from Marsha P. Johnson, a trans woman of color who insisted she had been there in spite of not showing up in any known photographs — led to David Bowie’s “Oh! You Pretty Things” while the stage manager roller-skated around the stage before he departed for the Folsom Street Fair.
The gleefulness continued through Cat Stevens “Roll on By” and a detour through Ted Nugent’s “Snakeskin Cowboys.” Mac isn’t averse to cutting off a song halfway through on the grounds that its message is terrible, but in this case, he brazenly appropriated the right-wing rocker’s gay-baiting lyrics. Then it was time for the backroom sex party, for which Mac’s costume was a silver jumpsuit that looked like something Benny Andersson of ABBA might wear — only with more purple ruffles and a mohawk headpiece. His costume designer, Machine Dazzle, emerged with a bull-whip butt-plug. They made out onstage.
“I love anonymous sex,” Mac said. “It’s not shallow. It’s deep. … I’ve learned so much about the world because I’ve slept with so much of it.”
An andante version of Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” laid bare just how deranged the lyrics make Gloria out to be, but what followed was the highlight of the night. Mac told an anecdote about ditching a straight Oscars party for an evening a The Cock, a gay dive on New York’s Lower East Side, and that became an epic re-enactment of the Cold War between two enormous inflatable penises decked out in Soviet and U.S. flags, set to David Bowie’s “Heroes.” (After the show, I spoke with a woman involved in the production, and she said sourcing the Stars-and-Stripes phallus was actually more difficult. It’s acknowledged in the liner notes as coming from a college in New Jersey.)
By judy’s own admission, Mac had cheated a little on the rigor of losing one musician per hour, and for the decade that began in 1986, the two guest vocalists, the drummer, and Machine all departed — a nod to the enormity of the AIDS crisis and the lives it took. Dressed as the “Angel of ’80s mixtape death who came to kill metaphorical AIDS,” Mac tore through Suzanne Vega’s “Blood Makes Noise” and Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love.” Shout-outs to performance artist and Taylor Mac mentor Penny Arcade and to gadfly activist Larry Kramer — without whom there would be no 24-Decade History, Mac said — led to a startling observation.
“The show is a metaphor for AIDS activism,” Mac said. “We’re falling apart, but we’re building ourselves up.”
A recitation of Zoe Leonard‘s poem “I Want a President” — which opens withe line, “I want a dyke for president” — led to a groundswell in favor of guitarist Viva DeConcini holding the highest office in the land. None other than S.F.’s own comic Marga Gomez delivered Mac a UPS package from Machine containing judy’s next costume, a bodysuit covered in provocative political slogans, cut-off denim shorts, and multiple chain wallets. It was time for the Lesbian Tailgate Party, and all women-loving-women were invited on stage to drink beer and eat hot dogs. The Lesbian Avengers passed out balloons that read “Ask About Lesbian Lives,” while Mac put on false breasts and, later, butterfly wings with a vulva and four symbols for female on the back.
Then it was time for the final act: Taylor Mac, all alone. Waving goodbye to pianist — and arranger of all 246 songs — Matt Ray, judy stepped through a giant prop vagina that had descended from the rafters, whereupon it turned into judy’s final dress.
“If you see me on the street,” judy said, “feel free to monologue at me. But I really encourage you to dialogue about the show and call people out for indulging” themselves in a world awash in social media and safe spaces hermetically sealed against outside feedback.
A 24-hour-long performance invites accusations of indulgence, and if nothing else, Mac is deft with pre-buttals that avoid sounding the least bit defensive. Here was the final one, but A 24-Decade History had proven definitively that it’s anything but an exercise in self-aggrandizement. Combing through an entire day’s worth of punch lines and zingers, it’s hard to find one nugget that distills the show’s ethos, but rather than try to mine the decade of 2006-2016 for wisdom, Mac simply performed an hour of original songs, moving from the piano to a little guitar (because judy had hurt a finger at some point).
For one song’s chorus, Mac invited everyone to join in. The refrain went, “I’m looking for world peace, or who / Who in the room to screw.” That shamelessly libidinal desire says it all. It’s not that sex is secondary to making the world better; they’ll always be linked. I will admit that I cried, and that I tried my best to sing through my tears and sniffles.
My only disappointment was the lack of a true encore. Chapter 3 had ended with a hard-charging version of The Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and Chapter 4 opened with a reprise of the same. So, after that 24th hour, after nearly 60 minutes of Mac crooning original tunes and tone poems about the Pulse massacre in Orlando and anecdotes about seeing a corpse wash up in Mexico, and with all that talent lying fallow in the wings, it would have been wonderful to witness two verses and a chorus from a song everyone knows the words to — even something incredibly corny, like “American Pie.” But Mac had a boo-boo, so we’ll never know.
“I got no clock. I got no finish. I just progress,” Mac said, threatening to “release a piece of art posthumously every year for the rest of your life.” Let it be so.