To call a performance "epic" is often an overstatement, but in the case of Taylor Mac, it very much fits. Mac is the theater artist, drag performer, MacArthur fellow and creative mind behind a solo performance called "A 24-Decade History of Popular Music."
It is a 24-hour-long retelling of American history through popular songs — everything from "Yankee Doodle Dandy" to a rearrangement of Ted Nugent's homophobic ballad, "Snakeskin Cowboys."
In the fall of 2016, Mac performed "24-Decade" all in one go at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn — each hour chronicling a new decade, complete with 24 onstage costume changes.
This week, the show comes to Los Angeles. The performance is divided into four separate six-hour chapters, which take place March 15-24. Mac, accompanied by a 24-piece orchestra, takes a critical look at popular music and social activism, from the country's founding in 1776 to the present day.
Taylor Mac says the show is "about becoming who we Americans want to be, by recognizing who we have been." The performance won the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History in 2017, and was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Taylor Mac recently spoke with The Frame's John Horn.
On the idea of our preference for nouns over verbs, which Mac lays out in the opening number:
I just think that we fall in love with nouns a little bit more than we fall in love with action, right? So we will obsess over purchasing things and make our lives horrible so that we can have a Formica tabletop and never see our kids. But, meanwhile, maybe if you loved verbs a little bit more than nouns you might have a more pleasant life and it might be a more progressive and exciting culture. I'm not against acquiring things. I'm one of those people that believe money actually can buy you happiness, because when I was super poor I was not as happy as I am right now (laughs). I just feel like a certain amount of stability lowers your stress levels. So I'm in support of money, but I'm not in support of money becoming the end-all, be-all.
On the audience participation element of the show:
We allow audience members to come and go as they please. There's this expectation that you come out to watch the full six hours, but when you have to go to the bathroom, go to the bathroom. If you feel like you really need a break from the show, go take a break in the lobby. There aren't any hard rules about anything. I just feel like it's a kindness to get people up [interacting with the show]. So that's one of the things we do: How can we as a group get everybody to journey's end, together. We take care of each other and that's just one of the ways — get your body moving, get it physical. And then there's time to sit and watch. It's about surprise. So much of it is about stitching the show with tons of surprise.
On growing up in Stockton, CA in the 1970s and '80s and not seeing LGBTQ people represented anywhere:
There was nothing. We didn't have the Internet then, even the library didn't have stuff in it. There was no mention of anything queer in school. The first time I met an out homosexual [was when] I told my mom I was spending the night at a friend's house and we drove to San Francisco. We spent the night in her car and went to the very first AIDS walk. So, the first time I saw an out homosexual it was thousands all at the same time, which was very profound and changed the course of my life. To see that onslaught of agency and to realize that I wasn't alone and that there was a queer history that no one had taught me — that was going to be a community that I could enter into — that was liberating. It made me skeptical about a lot of the things I'd been taught and it made me want to become an autodidact.
On what a reexamination of popular music can tell us about American history:
Everything from "Yankee Doodle Dandy" to the first minstrel songs, all these songs that we learned when we were children that just have this horrible history to them and we're carrying around that lineage with them — it's like carrying around our own personal little Confederate soldier statues with us. Part of our musical vernacular and our DNA, to some degree, is holding onto these things. Our ideology, how we frame ourselves and how we build our communities are often through our popular songs. So if the popular song that we're building the community from is a minstrel song, then what does that say about our community right now? All of that stuff is not necessarily surprising, in the same way our drag is surprising, but it's revealing. Everybody knows racism exists in the United States. Some people know it to a larger degree than other people. But I'm just saying: Remember — this is actually part of that lineage. ...I'm just here to unearth things that people have forgotten, dismissed or buried.
On whether drag is still a political statement, with the popularity of "RuPaul's Drag Race" entering the mainstream:
Drag was always something that was working outside of capitalism. And the thrust of its current popularity is that it is working within capitalism. And I'm in favor of all kinds of drag. It's an art form so it's like saying music is capitalistic. I'm in support of RuPaul and that whole crew. The only thing I dislike about it is the the focus on branding. I'm not a cow, I don't want to be branded. My whole art is about expanding our understanding of who we are instead of reducing it — and branding is about reducing. So I do kind of advocate for a little bit less consciousness towards money-making.
On the continuing relevance of Nina Simone's 1964 song, "Mississippi Goddam":
One of the ways they stopped the black civil rights movement from progressing was to say that it was all happening too fast — as if black people hadn't been around since the beginning of time. And what we see in American politics is that it is cyclical throughout our history. It's two steps forward, sometimes three steps back. After the Civil War there were 1,500 elected officials who were black, and the conservative Supreme Court and terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan chiseled away at that until there was none.
So now, of course, we're building that back up again. But it's taken all these years. So we find that we get these rights, we get gay marriage but then Trump — or one of the more homophobic politicians ever in the history of America, Pence — are our leaders. History tells us this happens again and again and again. So I'm hopeful. I'm optimistic. I do think that the arc of time bends towards justice, but I don't think it just continually goes forward. I think there's a back-and-forth for quite some time. It's hopeful with a healthy dose of cynicism.
Taylor Mac's "A 24-Decade History of Popular Music" will be performed over four evenings from March 15-24. Ticket information can be found here.