A transcendent performance experience
By Bradley Storer
‘Everything you’re feeling is appropriate….
…This is going to go on a lot longer than you’re gonna want it to.’
These were some of the guiding words from American cabaret titan and performance artist Taylor Mac (who uses the gender pronoun ‘judy’) as we embarked on a colossal undertaking for both the performer and us, the audience. 24 hours in total of performance, divided into four six-hour chapters, with each hour dedicated to a decade of American history and the music that was popular during the time, leading all the way from the late 1800’s to the present day. Mac was aided by the mammoth musical talent of musical director Matt Ray (who arranged all 246 songs in the show), 24 separate costumes by mind-bogglingly creative designer Machine Dazzle, a crew of ‘Dandy Minions’ composed of local performers from all genres, as well as a 24-piece ensemble of musicians and backing vocalists who were reduced by one every hour until finally Mac was left alone onstage. This ‘radical faerie realness ritual sacrifice’, as Mac described it, had already been performed piecemeal over the past five years and finally as a complete 24 hour cycle last year in New York, and now came Melbourne’s chance to sample this incredible piece for the 2017 Melbourne Festival.
The ‘sacrifice’ aspect of the ritual was the audience itself: sacrificing our time, our sense of self and inhibitions as our boundaries slowly broke down. Describing the disparate parts of the show seems maddeningly insufficient – not only the content but the simple act of being there and experiencing it in the moment, the collective build-up over the course of the four performances, was an essential part of the overall effect of the work. The continuing theme in each decade was of a community or group breaking apart and coming together during a state of crisis, and Mac informed us that a formative experience for both judy and the show was judy’s first encounter with the LGBTIQA+ community – a San Francisco AIDS walk at the height of the epidemic, where the affected members of the community were united and celebrating despite the disease tearing them all apart. In the combined 24 hours the audience spent with Mac, we began to form our own makeshift community amongst ourselves and with the performers.
The epic journey upon reflection feels like a collection of kaleidoscopic images blurring together at the edges. We witnessed the birth of America in a re-enacted dandy’s (as in ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’) revenge, the beginning of the women’s movement with a surprise guest appearance from Australian cabaret goddess Meow Meow, the influx of alcohol and the subsequent battle between the temperance movement and American drinking culture (here represented by Mac as the chaotic jester/drunken best friend ‘Crazy Jane’). The travel and settlement of Irish immigrants and the displacement of the Native Americans told through a ‘hetero-normative jukebox musical’, the audience blindfolded for the best part of an hour to evoke a parallel to the suffering of the people on the Trail of Tears, before the form and the chapter itself was ripped apart by a Native American child breaking free of white colonialist narratives and (in a meta-twist) from Mac as well.
The American civil war became a free-for-all ping pong ball barrage between the audience members, leading to an awkward dinner party with Mac as the presiding matriarch trying to keep peace in the rebuilding of the nation – to distract us, Mac and the entire company enacted an off-the-wall version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado stripped of its Orientalism and colonialist undercurrents by setting the action on Mars. Sections of the audience were brought up onstage to imitate the overcrowding of the boroughs of New York during the rise of immigration from Europe, before World War I tore the men (and male-identifying people) from the rest of the audience as they were conscripted and sent off to battle. The Golden Age of post-World War I jazz, represented here in a star turn that nearly stole the show by Melbourne cabaret icon and community activist Mama Alto, was shattered by the Depression but spirits were kept afloat by an audience-wide visit to a (metaphorical) soup kitchen, with actual (and delicious!) soup. After World War II, the white audience members were displaced from their seats and asked to stand at the sides of the theatre to simulate white flight to the suburbs, while people of colour were encouraged to move to the front and make themselves comfortable as a symbolic reparation for centuries of oppression world wide. We all clambered onto the freedom train as we rode the bus to the Bayard Rustin March, with strains of Bob Dylan and the Supremes accompanying the trip. The Cold War morphed into a battle between two giant inflatable phalluses decorated with the American and Soviet flags, followed by a rapturous orgy of joy in a 70’s backroom sex party heralded by Mac’s glorious version of ‘Purple Rain’, before we were birthed onto the bleak shore of the modern age in the harsh searching eye of a spotlight during a hushed and soul-piercing ‘O Super Man’. Nearly the entire cast swept away in the horrific torrent of the AIDS crisis, three skulls over Mac’s head weeping glittery tears for the lives lost to the disease. Mac inviting all the lesbians in the audience onstage for a radical lesbian party to celebrate an under-appreciated section of the queer community and as recognition for their tireless work to hold the community together and care for the sick. Mac finally left alone onstage, draped in a gigantic glittery vulva dress, accompanying themselves on the ukulele and piano in judy’s own compositions.
The sheer scope of 24 Decade is gargantuan, and watching the show was like entering an alternative universe – guided by Mac’s penetrating and rigorous intellect, the six-hour segments of the show passed by with surprising quickness. Mac continually told us that judy’s role was not a teacher or mentor but a ‘reminder’ of things that had been forgotten or buried by ourselves or others before us. In this vein, judy reminded us that this was not a ‘safe space’ because no such place exists in reality; we were never allowed to grow comfortable in our seats, called upon constantly to engage either physically or mentally with what was occurring before us. The audience, at first reluctant, began to engage with more and more enthusiasm as the hours passed, and it seems at one time or another that every section of the audience, from youngest to oldest, was represented onstage in some way.
Mac was unflappable across the entire span of the 24-hour show, never forgetting a single lyric and judy’s powerful voice never failing for even an instant. Dazzle’s intricate and endlessly creative outfits were a true spectacle that fascinated with their level of detail. The rotating cast of musicians and singers who supported Mac were uniformly excellent, with special mention to singer Steffanie Christi’an Mosley whose incredible soulful voice made even singing the alphabet a spiritual experience, and guitarist Viva DeConcini who blistered the audience with solos throughout, but absolutely claimed the stage during the famous solo in ‘Purple Rain’.
Every description of the event feels absolutely inadequate. As Mac explained at the very beginning of the show, the subject of worship in this ritual was not the noun, but the verb – the act of creation itself as both the subject of our worship and our form of worshipping, hence even trying to describe what a 24 Decade History managed to achieve feels impossible. In the current bleak political climate world-wide, this felt like a hopeful, joy-filled vision of a potential world in which the outsider was celebrated, the disenfranchised empowered, and queer reigned supreme.
The audience was left alone in darkness, many weeping, clinging together and pleading for this world not to end, singing the words of Mac’s final refrain:
‘You can lie down, or get up and play’.
A challenge to take the world we had just envisioned, and bring it to life.
Taylor Mac’s 24 Decade History of Popular Music in America was performed Wednesday 11th / Friday 13th / Wednesday 18th / Friday 20th October 2017 at The Forum Theatre, 154 Flinders St, Melbourne.