You know you’re witnessing something special when it’s 7am and a school marching band is battering the hell out of their drums while a person of indeterminate gender cavorts near-naked in glittery hot pants with an enormous psychedelic peace sign strapped to his/her/their back, as you and everyone around you belts out Curtis Mayfield’s civil rights anthem Move On Up.
And that was just a tiny fragment of Taylor Mac’s astonishing miesterwerk, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music.
The show takes you through American history a decade at a time, from 1776 to the present day, using the popular songs of each era to present an alternative history of the USA – one which venerates the outsiders, eccentrics and visionaries who built the nation’s counterculture.
At 246 songs and 24 hours long, it has only been performed once in full without breaks – in New York last October, an epic performance I was privileged to experience (and yes, I stayed awake, apart from an hour’s nap I took during the 1940s, in a communal bed situated on a balcony overlooking the stage). But next month the Melbourne arts festival will get A 24-Decade History in four six-hour chapters – the first time the whole work has been performed in Australia. (For those who can’t afford the hefty $700 to watch the full show, from Monday you can buy two-chapter packages at $399 – and Mac will also be playing highlights from the show at two other festival events, the “inauguration” and the wrap party.)
Whatever the portions in which it’s delivered, Mac’s show is an unforgettable kaleidoscope of performance art, cabaret, music gig, burlesque, puppetry, pageant, immersive theatre, poetry – in fact it’s hard to think of an art form that it doesn’t somehow encompass (film, maybe?).
Mac, who is bringing a 31-person team to Australia and will have 125 performers cast around it – including acrobats, burlesque dancers and two choirs – is looking forward to taking the show, and its 24 costume changes, back overseas.
“Someone like me doesn’t normally get to represent America, especially in this time of Trump,” Mac says, on the phone from New York. “It’s nice to say, ‘No, the crazy drag queen is the thing that represents America.’”
Born and brought up in California, Mac studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Art in New York and wrote judy’s first play, The Hot Month, in 1999. Judy is the pronoun Mac has used for the past few years, in homage to Judy Garland.
“I was getting introduced onstage and written about, and some people would say ‘he’ and others would say ‘she’ and neither really felt right for the art I was making,” Mac explains. “My friend Justin Vivian Bond started using the gender pronoun ‘v’, and that made me think I could choose my own.
“The other part is that I’m an artist, and it’s part of my job to make people think outside their norms a little bit. And I wanted a gender pronoun that was fun, and that immediately emasculates you – because you can’t roll your eyes and say ‘judy’ without being camp.”
Though still an unknown quantity to the mainstream, Mac has performed all over the world and won awards by the score; A 24-Decade History was shortlisted for the Pulitzer prize. Mac was in Sydney, touring the show Comparison is Violence: Or the Ziggy Stardust Meets Tiny Tim Songbook, when the inspiration for the marathon struck.
“Martin Sharp, a visual artist and a pop artist who was friends with [musician] Tiny Tim came to the show, and he was telling me about how Tiny Tim had created this 24-hour show as a fundraiser for a park outside Sydney,” Mac says. “I must have misheard him or misinterpreted it because in the research I’ve done since, the show wasn’t that. But it didn’t matter, because what I heard was the solution to the form that I was looking for.
“I thought, ‘Oh, that’s what I want to do – I want the show to be so long that the audience is falling apart, I’m falling apart, we’re all falling apart and we’re also building bonds.’”
A 24-Decade History, Mac says, is ultimately about the communities in American history who have done the same: redefining themselves after having been torn apart – particularly the generation of gay men ravaged by Aids.
Involving a whole phalanx of supporting musicians, dancers and helpmeets (some of whom assist Mac’s trips to the toilet during the marathon), A 24-Decade History is an incredible challenge for the performer – not least because Mac has to learn the lyrics to 246 songs (“It’s tricky, but that’s the job!”). Its subtitle – “a radical faerie realness ritual” – is an invocation to explore the complexity of life.
“The rituals we have are sporting events and the church, and they ask you to be one thing, to worship one god or to root for one team,” Mac says. “We don’t have rituals that allow us to express the full range of ourselves. I really think of the show as a ritual sacrifice, and what you’re sacrificing is your obstinate sense of self. We’re going through this history together, we’ve got the onslaught of history, all this weight on our shoulders, and what are we going to do with it?”
That question is more pertinent than ever in the wake of the neo-Nazi riots in Charlottesville, a flashpoint set off by the removal of a statue to Confederate general Robert E Lee. A 24-Decade History gleefully subverts the story of America as traditionally told by the colonialist oppressors. For instance, in one section there’s a wrestling bout between the queer poet Walt Whitman and Stephen Foster, who wrote American minstrel songs including Camptown Races. Mac plays Whitman, an audience member plays Foster, and it’s all refereed by Tigger: a man in a jockstrap with an interesting genital piercing.
“We have all these minstrel songs in the show,” Mac says. “We don’t just sing My Old Kentucky Home – we’re going to tear that song apart.”
Many other songs are subverted, such as Snakeskin Cowboys by Republican favourite Ted Nugent, which Mac turns into a slow dance, requiring audience members to dance with someone of the same gender.
Like Confederate statues, racist minstrel songs are evidence of the oppression embedded in American culture which A 24-Decade History roots out and examines. It’s not a golden oldies-style review.
“All those songs we use to disrupt something – except for maybe Purple Rain. That’s the only one we give ’em.”
The New York marathon performance happened the day after Trump’s “grab ’em by the pussy” tape was exposed by the Washington Post, and its technicolour queerness seemed to stand as a rebuke to – and shelter from – the toxic masculine heterosexuality his presidency represents. Nonetheless, Mac stresses that his themes are far broader than identity politics.
“I think my work is about heterogeneity,” he says. Even Mac’s 2015 play Hir – about a marine who returns to the family home to discover that his sister is transitioning and his bullying father, recovering from a stroke, is being fed oestrogen and dressed in women’s clothes by his mother – is, Mac says, about more than just gender.
“There is one line in Hir which is: ‘Gender isn’t radical, it’s not even progressive, it’s just an everyday occurrence’ – so basically, get over it. To me, identity politics are always a subplot; I’m not interested in it enough to ever make it the point, because I want to change my identity! I always say that my gender is performer, and performing gender.”
Hir recently played in Sydney, where it was received with a five-star review in this publication. Mac hopes that A 24-Decade History will also resonate in Australia, despite its explicit dealing with American history. Australia has its own history of racial oppression after all, which continues to be suffered by Indigenous people; and the show’s challenge to historical narratives also seem particularly pertinent, as Australia’s interminable row about marriage equality rumbles slowly to a conclusion.
None of this is new, Mac says: “The tactics that were used to stop Hillary Clinton from getting elected were the same used in the 1780s to stop women creating the women’s lib movement.” Similarly, the performer suggests, the US’s alt-right thugs have merely exposed an ugly face that’s been long-familiar to America’s minorities, but which white liberals preferred to ignore.
“Trump is doing his whole thing, like ‘Oh, the Tiki torches have come out!’ But they were always there,” Mac says. “The rest of the country is seeing the reveal of the underneath, because Trump is taking charge. But he hasn’t really taken charge – just for now. We’ll get that fucker out.”
A 24-Hour Decade will certainly outlast the Trump administration: it’s set to be turned into a 24-part series for a streaming service, which will combine concert footage and new material, and there will also be a live album. Mac, meanwhile, is moving on from his epic, too – judy has written two new plays, is working on a third, and there’s also an intriguing-sounding project in the works which Mac describes as a “performance art theatre movement tone poem which is nothing but entrances and exits performed by an ensemble of clowns”.
Mac isn’t concerned about the prospect of following up such a landmark show. “I’m not worried about this being the defining moment of my life. I hope it is! It should be! It doesn’t mean I’m going to stop … I’m glad the thing which is defining my artistic life at this point is a total joy.”