Stephanie, Francesca, and Brian and I saw Taylor Mac at St. Ann's Warehouse on 10/1. Stephanie is a good friend of mine from Wisconsin. We had lunch last month when she was in town visiting her daughter Francesca and she told me her friend Goldie had urged her to buy a ticket for Taylor Mac, who was doing a series of performances in September and October. Stephanie told me about it because it sounded like my lane - - I looked into it, and it sounded like it would be fun, so we put our heads and our calendars together and I bought us four tickets: Stephanie, her daughter Francesca, and Francesca's husband Brian.
Mac is a writer, singer, performance artist, drag diva. Let's get the gender pronouns out of the way: Mac uses the gender pronoun "judy" (lower case always, even at the start of a sentence) in the place of "he" or "she." Yes, the judy is named after Judy Garland. An excerpt from judy's bio: "Mac is the author of seventeen full-length plays and performance pieces. Most recently *Hir* at Playwrights Hoizaons and upcoming with judy's first all-ages play, *The Fre,* at Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis." I want to respect Mac's gender identity, but the judy thing is a little precious for my taste. I reread (the first few paragraphs of) a recent profile in the NY Times, and they called him "he," so I will too. Except when I call him Miss Thing.
The piece we saw was Act VII of an eight-act cycle called *A 24-Decade History of Popular Music,*, which takes us from 1776 to 2016. Each act covers three decades and lasts for three hours. And yes, if you've done the math you'll see that the number 24 has a special added meaning: he's performing each act separately and then culminating the series with a performance of all eight acts done together over a 24-hour period, with no break! I thought briefly about shelling out the (gulp) $600 for a ticket to that, but what if I didn't like it? Let me tell you, if he does it again, I will be there. This show wasn't merely amusing, emotional, riveting - - it was TRANSFORMATIONAL.
Act VII covers 1956 to 1986. As Mac puts it, "A March, a Riot, and a Backroom Sex Party." The performance was at St. Ann's Warehouse, but not the same location where I saw *Hell House,* *Let the Right One In,* and *Early Shaker Loops,* this was their new space down the street, much larger but still wonderfully distressed. The show opened with the six-piece band playing the theme to *Peter Gunn,*, which thrilled me right off. Mac came onstage and sang a new setting of the lyrics to "To everything (turn, turn, turn)", fabulous and fierce. He was wearing a pink suit and pillbox hat which was morphed with a simple shift printed with the stars and stripes, and for that extra bit of performance art screwiness, a row of Campbell's soup cans strung along the back. The wig had a Raggedy Ann vibe, but on closer inspection was made out of old pantyhose. White makeup with serious eyebrows and equally serious four-inch pumps.
I don't know why, but I wasn't expecting him to be such a good singer. With all that other stuff going on, you would think the voice would be less impressive, right? He has the strong wide vibrato of a Broadway belter in her prime, coupled with an authentic, bone-deep understanding of funk, rock, any pop genre. Maybe it all works so well because he turns every song into a Taylor Mac song. This strategy works well for Aretha Franklin.
The first third of the show was about the March on Washington, and he told the people sitting in the center section that they were going to do a recreation of White Flight - - the white people in the center section did a slo-mo flight to the other ends of the theater, and their seats were taken by people of color. All of this while he sang "I put a spell on you," and he encouraged the rest of the audience to swirl their hands around in the air, making his spell stronger. There was a lot of audience participation in this show, which is one of the things that made it so extraordinary. Mac came down off the stage at the end of the song and read the riot act to a couple of white people who hadn't moved. He said, "You're Jewish? That doesn't count, you're still white." He let the white people move back to their seats a couple of songs later, but told them that if they came back and a person of color was in their seat, they could not ask that person to move!
Next, a Burt Bacharach song I didn't know, "Here where there is love," such a pretty song. Then the Supremes' "Keep me hanging on," and he introduced his backup singers. Oh sweet Jesus I am covered with chills remembering those backup singers. He did the show in Ann Arbor a few months ago and thought it would be fun to hire some local talent, so he had these two women brought in from Detroit, Stephanie Christi'an and Thornetta Davis. They got a few solo opportunities here and there and they delivered!
He brought it down with the next song, a Bob Dylan song called "A hard rain's gonna fall," what a lovely song. Bob Dylan had been inspired by the folk song "Lord Randall", which Mac had considered putting in the 1780 portion of the show, but he wasn't into singing a song about a man eating eels. So he did the Dylan song instead.
He sang Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam," and he told the story about how one day he put his three favorite singers on shuffle: Nina Simone, Patti Smith, and Tiny Tim. And he realized that none of them is really a great singer! Patti Smith sort of screams through everything - - Tiny Tim, well, no explanation needed there - - and Nina Simone CAN sing in tune, but doesn't seem to want the oppression of proper tuning to get in the way of her expression. And he gave us a quote that I had to write down word for word:
"My job as a theatre artist is not to teach you anything but to remind you of the things you have forgotten, dismissed, or buried."
Stitch THAT on a pillow. He sang "Move on up" with a low down funky beat. He warned us that his costume designer, Machine Dazzle, was going to come onstage and help him with his costume change. Dazzle took off Mac's wig, dress, and everything else, and he was left onstage just wearing his gaff. We heard some drumming out in the lobby and lo and behold the Brooklyn United Marching Band came into the theater, about thirty young Black men, I would guess from 12 to 25. Set the joint on FIRE. I hadn't noticed Mac leaving the stage, but now he came back on in his costume for the second third of the show, which was about the Stonewall Riots. He wore a rainbow macrame owl hanging from his neck (with eyes that lit up), rainbow sequined go-go shorts, a huge rainbow peace sign hanging off his back (probably about five feet across), and a huge electronic afro, lit up in all kinds of colors. And let me tell you, Miss Thing was workin' it. The song, that outfit, and especially the marching band: this was the most thrilling moment of the show, the room was surging with power.
The marching band marched back offstage and Mac told a funny story about having done this same show the night before (this is the only act of the eight acts that was being performed twice, apart from the marathon). He had rehearsed with the marching band but hadn't prepared them for his costume. So when he came onstage in his rainbow get-up he became aware of the total professionalism of these young men: they were DETERMINED to not be distracted by that thing that was going on over there. But now, the second night, he caught them making a few furtive glances.
He staged an abstract recreation of the homophobia that led to the Stonewall Riots. His minions (his word, not mine) passed out ping pong balls to the audience, and he, representing the LGBTQIA community, ran through the aisles while we, representing the heteronormative hegemony, threw our hateful ping pong balls at him. All of this while he sang "Born to run." And then when the song was over the stage manager came out and swept away the ping pong balls onstage. Mac said, "Look at you Jason, you've put on a purple wig!"
He announced that the songs in the next hour were all going to be songs that were on the jukebox at the Stonewall. We applauded that sentiment, and then he said, "OK that's not true." The next song, "Goodbye yellow brick road," was written after Stonewall, but it served as Mac's memorial to Judy Garland, whose funeral was the day of the Stonewall Riots. And Mac got six random guys in the audience to pick up a small random woman and carry her through the aisles of the theatre while we, the audience, threw silk rose petals at her (the petals had been distributed by those helpful minions).
The next song was not just the high point of the show, it was possibly the most transformative moment I've ever had in the theatre, and one of the most poignant and memorable moments of my life. Mac sang a reworking of a Ted Nugent song called "Snakeskin cowboys" and told us to move into the aisles and choose someone of our same gender, someone we didn't know, and give that person a hug. This adorkable slim 40-ish ginger-haired guy and I smiled at each other and gave each other a hug. Mac said to stay in the hug and let it gradually turn into a slow dance. Mac sang, the ginger and I talked a little bit, laughed at the funny things that Mac was saying, it was very sweet. I looked around and saw Stephanie dancing with some random woman, Francesca dancing with some random woman, Brian dancing with some random guy.
Mac said to break apart and face forward. He scolded the straight guys in the audience for hardly touching each other while they were dancing, and he was amused by the talking and giggling that was going on, because that's an honest human reaction to dancing with someone you don't know, but now it was going to be different: we were to go back to our partners and give that person a real hug, with our bodies truly pressed together. And dance like that, with no talking. And that few minutes with this complete stranger (whose name I never learned) were so full of tenderness and empathy and political strength. It was sublime.
There was a third and final costume change. It was dark in the theater and I can't read what I wrote in my notes, I didn't know the song. This costume change happened onstage: he took off the rainbow outfit (he had discarded the giant peace sign earlier) and was helped into a purple and black sequined bell-bottomed jumpsuit, with a ruffled jacket, platform boots, and a matching mohawk headpiece. This song featured a stellar electric guitar solo by Viva DeConcini, an ordinary-looking middle-aged woman with a shag hairdo who you could stand next to in line at the CVS and never guess was a killer guitarist. This show was so full of surprises!
The final third of the show was "a backroom sex party," which, this being 1986, I'm sure will lead into the AIDS crisis in the final segment of the show. I giant balloon (probably thirty feet long) shaped like a penis came into the theater. It had red and white stripes down the shaft and white stars on a blue field on the balls. We all stood up and batted it around so it traveled through the space and gradually out into the lobby. Good clean family fun.
Two more songs: who would guess that Laura Branigan's "Gloria" could be such a delight? It went on and on and was endlessly delightful. He ended the show by asking the audience to sing "ha ha ha ha" on this pitch: his masterful music director, arranger, and pianist (and partner offstage) Matt Ray gave us a pitch, and we all sang "ha ha ha ha." I was hoping it was what I thought it was, and was happy to hear that yes, we were doing "O Superman" by Laurie Anderson, a hypnotic and beautiful song. A perfect, quiet ending to a deeply meaningful performance. And a quick encore, the first song in the next segment, "Love will tear us apart" by Joy Division. Which gave is a little energy and made us feel we could face the outside world. Mac had created such a haven of peace and power and love, it was hard to leave.
PS: I got home at about 12:30 AM and was surprised to find Richard still up. I told him about the show and of course had to mention the ginger guy I had danced with. He raised his eyebrows sardonically. So the next morning (this morning, as I'm writing this) I said to him, "You're not bothered that I was dancing with that ginger-haired guy last night, are you?" And he said, "You can dance with anyone at all, as long as you come home to me." Which is a quote from the Broadway musical *No, No, Nanette.* Can you imagine.