While it doesn’t have quite the same hype that was attached to last season’s Hamilton, Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music is a performance juggernaut, easily the marquee event of the fall. Performed in four six-hour segments from Sept. 15-24, it’s a theatrical drag supernova, a self-reloading confetti cannon that fires in all directions, and a critique of the entire history of the United States of America through its most vernacular art form: popular song. And Chapter one only covers the nation’s first 60 years, 1776 to 1836.
Its energy level is unmatched by virtually anything. (It made The New York Times all but cry.) Mac, a California native who lives and works in New York, combines bawdy storytelling, lush instrumentation, savage social commentary, maximalist costuming, audience engagement, and a grand extemporaneousness to extraordinary effect at the Curran. With each hour corresponding to one decade — 1776 to 1786, 1786 to 1796, et cetera — A 24-Decade History creates loose narratives that challenge the standard retelling of U.S. history by embodying characters of varying degrees of social defiance. (While it didn’t come up Friday night, the gender-defying Mac professes to use the somewhat tongue-in-cheek pronoun “judy,” so we’ll go with that.)
After the opening number, “Amazing Grace” — also seen in the preview video — Mac grounded the first segment of a full day’s worth of sonic adventures as a “Radical Faerie realness ritual sacrifice,” in which the audience itself is the sacrifice. (It sounds much more like a mass murder than it is.) Plucking a woman named Sierra from the seats, judy had the house worship her as a deity — only to reframe the rite as one where we were to worship not some creator, but the act of creation. Behind Mac was the 24-member orchestra, which shrinks by one during every hour-decade of the show, along with a group of silent knitters who presence symbolizes the early American sense of industry.
As a sort of opening invocation, Mac brought up Ann-Marie Sayers, the tribal chairperson of Indian Canyon, an indigenous community near Hollister with numerous sacred sites. Judy presented her with two offerings: an apology for the way his ancestors mistreated hers, and the gift of his mother’s tambourine. She accepted each, and spoke at length about the importance of Indian Canyon to the continued survival of California’s indigenous peoples.
Then it was as if America were reborn. Excursions through Thomas Paine‘s Common Sense and the homophobia of the song “Yankee Doodle Dandy” — originally a British taunt against supposedly effeminate and tacky colonials — gave way to loose stories around figures like the libidinous, Dionysiac Katie Hussy or a pair of Irish emigrants who go years without seeing one another.
Audience participation is crucial — even though Mac slyly mentioned how much judy hates it because, “I feel like people are trying to force themselves on me. But I realize it’s different when I ask you to participate.”
By the time the night was over, I’d eaten an apple, drunk a Lagunitas, pelted a judgey “temperance choir” with a Ping-Pong ball, and gotten extremely uncomfortable when my boyfriend and I rubbed grapes on each others faces while blindfolded — as instructed, naturally. And you lose yourself in it. Somehow, even singing along to the alphabet song as if we were all on Sesame Street didn’t feel silly. The only aesthetic decision that left me upset was the dismissal of the harpist at the end of the 1786-1796 decade, and even then, it’s only because I love the harp. At least she was carried off the stage, hero-style, and up to the mezzanine.
As the evening progressed, I came to realize the music is almost secondary. It’s not that it’s inferior or that there’s filler, it’s that Mac’s approach is almost the opposite of musical theater, that most American of genres. The songs in A 24-Decade History are connective tissue for hours of anecdote-framed disquisitions on theater, art, and life. Taylor Mac is fundamentally a trickster, and you gradually come to understand that judy’s not using music to fight racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of injustice, judy’s tracing the lineage by which popular music is a vehicle for those evils and the insidious degree to which they’re encoded in white supremacy, heteronormativity, and the very construction of the Americans’ self-understanding.
“How do we build ourselves because we are living under a system of oppression?” Mac asks. The question refers to the colonists in 1776, but also to Americans throughout the country’s history. “I don’t have the answer. I just ask the question for 24 hours.”
Along the way, the stories range from infuriating — as when discussing Andrew Jackson‘s genocidal presidency — to the hilarious, such as a yarn about Mac’s ex, a fellow drag queen who broke his tailbone dancing in heels on a bar not once but twice, or one about playing beer-pong at Dartmouth that turned into a story about the “urinal” at the Mineshaft, a long-gone New York bar.
Although Mac’s words function as marginalia to the lyrics of the largely forgotten songs, we learn a great deal about judy’s persona life, actually. For instance, Mac no longer does cocaine because “I have arts administrative meetings in the morning.”
There’s an edge, too. Mac isn’t above making fun of the audience and its H&M-centric fashion choices, tech-conquered San Francisco, or even his financial backers. “I don’t like to bite the hand that feeds me,” judy said at one point. “But I do like to get a little lipstick on it.”
Machine Dazzle‘s costumes — or “living sculptures,” if you will — are deliriously absurd. They scan as stereotypically female, owing to the heels and long gloves and headpieces, but they’re almost deliberately un-wearable. Some of them don’t even stay fully intact for long, either intentionally or otherwise. By the end of at least three segments, Mac’s wig had come off. Some features, like shrunken heads tied to a dress, don’t necessarily even correlate with the time period.
Because the night is long, patrons get up as they please. There is no intermission, just a few quick breaks for costume changes. It’s not unlike what an opera house was centuries ago, before opera calcified into a place of reverence. Irreverence is the mode here, and it fuels the audience’s endurance.
Sweet duets, real-life S.F. drag figures — Rosemary Chicken of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, for one — and zany sketches like an oversized flaccid key penetrating a heart-shaped lock around an audience member’s neck keep the energy up all night. The most bittersweet moment of the night came when Mac dedicate a “sentimental song” — the folk tune of unknown origin, “Shenandoah” — to Bubbles, the gender-non-conforming DJ and nightlife figure who was murdered in the Tenderloin last weekend. San Francisco didn’t even exist in 1836, when the program ended, but its spirit was there already.