The Mail Gaze

Taylor Mac seeks his dead dad in old letters to the ladies

Onstage, the writer and drag artist Taylor Mac has appeared as a sea creature, a forest sprite, an American flag, a comic book, bubble wrap, and once—in a children's theater production of Jesus Christ Superstar—as a prepubescent Son of God. (He can produce photos in which he's being whipped by five-year-old centurions— which may explain a lot.) In his new solo show, The Young Ladies Of, which begins performances at Here Arts Center on September 26, Mac will play several thousand Australian women and another son—himself.

While stationed in Vietnam in 1968, Mac's father, Second Lt. Robert Mac Bowyer, placed an ad in Australia's Daily Telegraph, seeking correspondence with a "young lady, 19–26, with R and R in mind (I'll be coming to Sydney for leave soon)." He mentioned his enthusiasm for surfing, his distaste for "gutless men," and closed with a smiley face. He received countless letters. While cleaning out the garage three years ago, Mac's mother came across several bags of them. Mac's father had died in a drunken motorcycle accident shortly before his son's fourth birthday, and Mac maintains tremendous curiosity about him. He began to read the letters eagerly, skimming at least a thousand.

"When I first got the letters," Mac explains, "I thought, 'Oh my God, I'm going to find out so much information about this man I never knew!' No—small talk, small talk, small talk." The letters were "almost completely contentless": a cheery greeting, a physical description, some complimentary remarks on Sydney and its weather, and finally, "I hope you'll write!" Initially, Mac had conceived The Young Ladies Of as "a docudrama of all these letters. But then I realized the letters are so boring I couldn't do that." The play still includes dozens of these missives, but it has become more intimate, less about the individual letters and more about Mac's yearning to know his father, "a red-state, Texan-macho-soldier guy," and "how he would have responded to having this drag-queen son."

Out of his wigs and white base and bubble wrap, Mac cuts a slight figure. Though he's 34 (the age at which his father died), with his bald head, outsized blue eyes, and elfin ears, there's something babylike about him. But that appearance belies the complexity of his work—both the pastiche texts and the elaborate costumes. He's created epic pieces such as Red Tide Blooming, a musical conflating the end of the Coney Island Mermaid Parade with the Apocalypse, and The Lily's Revenge, a five-hour Noh play "about how we use nostalgia and tradition as a way to oppress people." In performance, he aims for intricate looks: "It's feminine and it's not, and it's ugly and it's pretty, and it's graceful and it's chaotic, and it's professional and it's totally amateur. All those things."

All of his plays are self-revealing, but The Young Ladies Of may well be his most personal, concluding with a letter he writes in response to his father's ad in a posthumous attempt at connection and acceptance. "I have all these questions about what he was like," Mac says. "And I will never know."

In preparing Young Ladies, he did learn a few things about his father—almost incidentally. Readying a slide section, "I was looking at photos, and I was thinking, 'Look at him,' when he went through his little chubby phase. On the back of one of the pictures it said, 'Fat man in Saigon.' There's such vulnerability there." There's vulnerability in Mac's performance as well, like when he writes to his father a list of questions he wants to ask him: "Are you messy like me? Did you want to have children? Have you fallen in love? Why did you like the sea? . . . Would you be proud of me? Would you like my job? Would you even be someone worth wanting?" Rarely has someone wearing so much make-up appeared so naked.

 
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