I doubt the Eisenhower Theater was more queer than the night Taylor Mac came to town. The outrageously gifted and fabulously dressed stage performer brought “a radical fairy-like ritual sacrifice” to a sold-out crowd who at one point were persuaded to form same-sex couples and dance slowly.
Whatever Taylor Mac offers, we’ve made it. It was as if everything that was left and conventional about DC was deliciously corrupted by a queer counterculture steamroller.
The two-part program was packed with obstacles, starting with Mac entering the aisle wearing a glittering vision in gold with shimmering wings, ruby ââred heels and a glitter headdress adorned with “In Goddess We Trust”. “. It was the first but not the last extrava-robe-za from longtime Mac costume designer Machine Dazzle, whose own cameo appearance was a tribute to flamboyant performer / designer Leigh Bowery.
It wouldn’t be “a normal gig,” Mac said, unsurprisingly. âIt’s a performance art concert. You can hate everything about this show, and I still got it. Which of course was a joke, as the audience loved every minute of it. Notably when Mac got into an arrangement of “Amazing Grace” so amazing it sounded like Prince’s second coming, Jimi Hendrix and Ziggy Stardust all rocked and rolled into one.
The program, Mac announced, would be a selection of songs about the resistance since 1776, abridged from the 24-hour version, performed in New York.
The first song in the series was indeed a 1776 ditty called “The Congress,” which was a treat for anyone fed up with today’s legislative power. Its unequivocal catchphrase was “hate Congressâ¦ run Congressâ¦ curse haughty Congressâ¦ say goodbye to Congress”.
From 1780 Mac picked up what he called “the first women’s liberation song” (I’m not sure what he meant by that, as it was written in praise of the Queen ). And then, as with bipartisan credit, Mac presented what he called “the GOP’s favorite resistance song.” When it turned out he was talking about the blackface minstrel classic “Dixie Land,” the audience screamed (“Oh, I wish I was in cotton land, / Old times are not forgotten. / Look elsewhere, look away, look away Dixie Land! “) Then surprisingly Mac brought a real feeling to the tune, like a beautifully moving musical reverie. Of course Mac had a zinger to catch up with us and score a point:” La nostalgia is the racist’s last refuge. “
Mac’s chatter between and within songs was inimitably quick and witty; and the impromptu theatrical provocations, a hoot. At one point, Mac walked into the audience, picked six middle-aged white men, and had them carry the glam artist shoulder-high to the stage, while singing a disco arrangement for trumpets. from the end of the 1880s “Elle” I will go around the mountain. I can’t guess if this was meant to be a double meaning.
Continuing the show’s radical embrace of resistance movements, Mac included references to the black civil rights movement, the women’s liberation movement and the queer civil rights movement in an introduction to Nina Simone’s song “Mississippi Goddam â(â You don’t have to live next to me / Just give me my equality â). Accompanied by two powerful singers (Steffanie Christi’an and Thornetta Davis) and the exceptional orchestra (Danton Boller on bass, Bernice “Boom Boom” Brooks on drums, Viva DeConcini on guitar, Greg Glassman on trumpet, J (Walter Hawkes on trombone, Dana Lyn on violin) under magnificent musical direction from Matt Ray on piano, Mac’s rendition of “Mississippi Goddam” rocked the house like a bomb of truth.
Mac’s character and lineup shares some DNA with Charles Ludlam’s Theater of Ridicule, but as Mac created a classic Irving Berlin song, things got not only ridiculous but oddly touching. Explaining that Berlin was a Russian Jewish immigrant who grew up in a crowded New York apartment building, Mac coaxed the audience into a “re-enactment,” leading us section by section to make absurd sounds – infants screaming, parents chatting, siblings chatting – like we were a cacophonous orchestra, while Mac on the microphone dealt with the irony of “All Alone”.
After the intermission, a thunderous âGimme Shelterâ from the Rolling Stones shook us (âIt’s just a gunshot / It’s just a gunshotâ), and Mac worked into a poignant reference to Marsha P Johnson, the transgender pioneer and activist, said she started the gay rights riot in 1969 when she threw a drink in the mirror at Stonewall Bar. Punned Mac: “It was the shot glass heard around the world.”
It turned out that middle-aged white men wanted more. Mac picked three this time and sent them on stage with instructions for them to stand in the center of the stage and represent “the patriarchy.” Which they did with obvious good humor. Then, with a full cheek, Mac sang the Platters’ âOnly Youâ (âOnly You Can Make This World Seem Rightâ¦ You Are My Dream Come True, My One and Only Youâ). Things got very manageable and hugging.
There was still more. Mac featured a Ted Nugent song (“Snakeskin Cowboy”) which Nugent said was about fagot bashing (“Who the hell do you think you are / You’re dancing in your high-heeled boots /â¦ / I’m hanging out with your pants on fancy on â). And Mac said, “We have to make this shit our own.” With that, Mac induced / seduced the entire audience into the aforementioned same-sex slow dance. I can not explain it. You must have been there.
Then came an entrance even grander than Mac’s: the Bowie State University Pep Band, horns and drums pounding, descended the aisle in formation and strength and had the stage with the galvanizing accents of the Staple Singers’ “Freedom Highway” ( “We are walking on the Freedom Highway / And we will not turn around”).
Word the highlight of the show doesn’t evenâ¦ But Mac had even more in store, including a big finishing inspiration that “people have power.”
Something precious and ineffable happened during this show. It was no coincidence that lighting designer John Torres rolled out plenty of red, white and blue across a floating haze that not only made the house feel like it was part of the scene, but made us all feel like part of America. It was entertaining out of the ordinary and at the same time rooted in a breathtaking politics of inclusion and resistance. Mac got a MacArthur Engineering Grant for good reason. If the nation had a popular artist winner, I would name Taylor Mac.
Before the show, I heard a patron who had seen the 24 hour version say, âIt was exhausting but quite phenomenal. Before being swept away by this two and a half hour traveling edition, I couldn’t imagine wanting 21 and a half hours more.
Now I absolutely can.
Duration: Two hours 30 minutes, including an intermission.
Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (Abstract) performed on March 6, 2018 at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater – 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC.
Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (Abridged) was presented as part of Direct Current, a new celebration of contemporary culture, which runs through March 19, 2018, at the Kennedy Center. Tickets and full schedule are in line.