(click photos twice to enlarge)
I loved seeing Act VII of Taylor Mac’s epic 24-Decade History of Popular Music at St. Ann’s Warehouse, which covered 1956-1986, though it’s hard to describe exactly what I saw. Judy (Taylor Mac’s preferred pronoun) called it “a performance art concert,” which gave judy license to do pretty much whatever the hell judy and judy’s collaborators cared to dream up. This show has been developed in bits and pieces all over the country for several years, and diehard fans had been reporting day-by-day on Facebook as the production rolled out its first and probably only complete performances, which will culminate October 8-9 in a continuous 24-hour marathon. Let’s just say it’s a highly subjective queervisionist history of the United States steeped in the political ferment of this minute.
The show began in the lobby, which may have been the only but definitely the best place to store the costumes that Taylor would wear for the 24 decades, all of them meticulously designed and built by the fiendishly brilliant Machine Dazzle. Those in the know explained to newbies whatever they could: “Oh, that was the white trash segment, with the potato chip bags and the gay porn. And that was for The Mikado performed on Mars.” Machine Dazzle sauntered by for a photo op, chewing gum and looking all yeah-yeah-I-did-all-this-no-big-deal.
At showtime Taylor blazed onstage (in a Pop Art mashup outfit topped with a shawl of Campbell’s Soup cans) crooning an almost unrecognizable speed-rock version of “Turn! Turn! Turn!” Judy prefaced the evening with a slight recap of the previous episode, which required segregating the audience, a witty way to theatricalize 1950s America. Taylor designated the section right in front of the stage (prime VIP seating) as “inner city” and the side sections as “the suburbs.” On cue, the white people in that section were instructed to enact (in slow motion) “white flight” by surrendering their seats and moving to “the suburbs.” Meanwhile, the people of color in the audience were invited to move to the “inner city.” This was not optional. Taylor enforced the rules quite strictly. This may have happened to the tune of “I Put a Spell on You.”
The rest of the first hour revolved around the 1963 March on Washington – getting on the bus and riding the “Freedom Highway.” A show of hands brought out two audience members who had been on the march. Taylor did some very humorous yet savvy “calling in,” inviting white people to “Think” (“like maybe thinking about working for the movement rather than leading, listening rather than talking…”). The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hanging On” gave Taylor a moment to introduce two terrific backup singers judy had collected while working on the piece in Detroit (well, judy admitted, Ann Arbor), Stephanie Christian and Thornetta Davis. The set also included “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” “Mississippi Goddam,” and a beautifully earnest down-in-one version of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.”
The Brooklyn United Marching Band provided an ecstatic transition (“Movin’ On Up”) to the next section, in which Taylor – wearing a crazy glittering disco-ball of a headdress, sparkly hot pants, and a giant peace sign strapped to Judy’s back like wings or a crucifix – focused on the Stonewall Riots as the centerpiece of the decade 1966-76. “Every song in this section was on the jukebox at the Stonewall,” judy lied, seguing into an amazing if out-of-context rendition of Patti Smith’s “Birdland.” Taylor’s posse of Dandy Minions passed out ping-pong balls for the audience to pelt judy with, representing homophobia as judy passed through the house singing “Born to Run” (oh, THAT gay anthem….). In honor of Judy Garland, he sang Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” with a smidge of “Over the Rainbow” at the end. “Gimme Shelter” factored in there somewhere, too.
One of my favorite parts of the whole show was watching the intimate spectacle of Taylor Mac changing costumes onstage between decades – stripping down to flesh-colored briefs and then rebuilding the next vision with the help of Machine Dazzle, who didn’t stint on his own amazing costumes. For this transition he wore most of Taylor’s glam-rock costume and feathery Mohawk headdress onto the stage and transferred it all to the star, though keeping for himself the Mapplethorpian bullwhip-up-the-ass tail. I took all the other pictures I’m posting here except for these two, which are by Jackie Rudin, who has done an amazing job documenting this performance.
The 1976-86 section perversely turned the entire theater into an imaginary backroom sex bar, with Taylor perhaps paying homage to Torch Song Trilogy with judy’s own detailed reminiscences of The Cock and The Slide and The Hole, to the tune of Laura Branigan’s “Gloria.” During “Heroes” the balcony became a curtained-off orgy space (with the Dandy Minions putting on a filthy shadow play). Taylor had the audience pair up into same-sex duos for a middle-school slow dance to Ted Nugent’s “Snakeskin Cowboys.” (In case it’s not clear, this show was ALL about audience participation, some of it simple hand gestures developed in collaboration with choreographer Jawole Jo Willa Zollar. But the alter kocker sitting in front of us would have none of it – he slept through the first hour and spent most of the rest of the evening playing bridge on his phone while his long-suffering wife and daughter seemed to enjoy themselves.) “Purple Rain” became a rousing singalong, while a giant inflatable American flag phallus balloon bounced over our heads. And the decade ended with a remarkable version of Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman,” an endurance test for the audience to supply the ah-ah-ah-ah-ah rhythm track.
I would love to have seen the last act, whose themes were Direct Action (the AIDS/ACT UP years), Radical Lesbians (with guest appearance by Sarah Schulman), and Originals (for the last hour, it’s just Taylor onstage singing judy’s own songs), but c’est la vie. Big props to the incredible team of artists who made this show a memorable spectacle, including music director and arrange Matt Ray, the sizzling band (led by guitarist Viva DeConcini), and – as the pictures can attest – lighting designer John Torres. Not to mention the conceptual genius, stamina, vocal talent, political savvy, goodheartness, and generosity of Taylor Mac.