From noon on Saturday, October 8, to noon on Sunday, October 9, I attended theater artist, drag performer, and musician Taylor Mac’s marathon performance, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, at St. Ann’s Warehouse. This epic production, in development since 2012, is a series of concerts of popular music from each decade of American history, 1776 to 2016. Except that “concert” doesn’t begin to cover it. The piece is an endurance feat for Mac, his band, and the audience. Twenty-four musicians accompany Mac onstage, and one departs each hour, eventually leaving the star performer alone. It’s a fashion spectacular, showcasing costume designer Machine Dazzle’s wildly inventive creations. It’s a series of pointed meditations on race, class, and gender in America.
It’s also an exercise in community building, among performers and spectators, together in a room for 24 hours. We sing along together, sprawl on the floor together, and eat together. And we watch Mac survive, aided by an enormously diverse variety of collaborators: virtuosic music director Matt Ray, musicians and backup singers, puppeteers, dancers, and a coterie of festively attired assistants called the Dandy Minions. There are no intermissions, so the singer eats, drinks, and, with Machine Dazzle’s assistance, changes costumes onstage. (A few times, the audience collectively gives Mac permission to go offstage and pee.)
What follows is a partial chronicle of events.
12:25 p.m. Taylor Mac, multicolored pennants and streamers trailing behind him, strides down the aisle singing “Amazing Grace.” Welcome, he says. (Mac employs multiple gender pronouns but prefers “judy” above all others.) The marathon will be a “radical faerie realness ritual” — and we, collectively, are the sacrifice.
This beginning act conjures the chaos of American independence: a victory that resulted in the perpetuation of historical injustices, like slavery, and the displacement of indigenous peoples. Why, in America, Mac asks, are we constantly asked to forgive oppressors and vilify outsiders?
2:14 p.m. The 1790s, Mac tells us, were like a frat party: Americans were so thrilled to be out from under the paternal thumb of the Brits that we went wild. The Dandy Minions hand celebratory ginger beers around.
5:38 p.m. Mac, wearing an enormous white bonnet, asks us to contemplate the Trail of Tears, then launches into a series of nineteenth-century children’s songs.
6:48 p.m. The 1850s is a rousing sing-off between Stephen Foster and Walt Whitman, competing to be named the true father of American song. Mac plays both roles — though an audience member is summoned onstage to symbolically represent Foster — while sporting a skirt fashioned from empty potato-chip bags and interjecting acid commentary about the racism and misogyny in classic Foster ditties like “My Old Kentucky Home.” Whitman’s words, by contrast, still sound radical today.
8:20 p.m. The Civil War breaks out, and the audience is divided for a series of “battles” in which we hurl ping-pong balls at each other. Mac deconstructs the Southern anthem “Dixie”: “Wish you were in the land of cotton? I bet — you didn’t have to pick the cotton,” he remarks.
10:45–11:31 p.m. Mac guides us through eras of westward expansion and Eastern European immigration to the strains of “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad” and Irving
1:18 a.m. “What’s next?” Mac quips.
2 a.m. The 1920s, for Mac, are about competing responses to the trauma of WWI: the desire to acknowledge the pain, and the desire to stifle it through decadence. Yet though Mac sides with the first, this hour conjures real hedonistic joy, including a delightful sequence to “Shake That Thing,” in which the oldest spectator present “teaches” the youngest how to dance.
3:13 a.m. Mac wears a large, plush soft-serve ice cream sundae. The band plays Depression-era songs while the Dandy Minions set up “soup kitchens” to feed us late-night snacks.
6:16 a.m. The civil rights movement is under way, and Mac brings Detroit singers Steffanie Christi’an and Thornetta Davis onstage to sing protest songs, including a rousing rendition of “Mississippi Goddam.” “Desegregation: too slow,” the singers chant. These songs of the struggle for racial justice are particularly poignant because, ten hours (or a century) earlier, in this same room, we were listening to songs celebratory of the slaveholding South. Theatrical duration, shared space and time, creates its own collective memory.
7:06 a.m. Heading from the late Sixties to the early Seventies. Mac, wearing a huge multicolored peace sign, meditates on the Stonewall riots. “Imagine that I am the queer of America, and you are the homophobes,” Mac insists. At his behest, we pelt him with ping-pong balls as he dashes around the theater singing “Born to Run.”
7:48 a.m. “The thing about sexuality is, it’s like performance art,” says Mac. “There is no failure.”
8:54 a.m. We give Machine Dazzle a standing ovation for his final exit from the stage. “It’s the AIDS decade,” explains Mac. “I thought we had to lose something major.”
9:34 a.m. Mac recalls that his first encounter with an out gay person was when he attended an AIDS walk in San Francisco and saw thousands of them at once. “The reason they were all together was because they were dying,” he says. “What I experienced was a community that was being built as it was being torn apart.” Years later, he wanted to create a performance that embodied a community like that: one that was forged while being destroyed. “So,” he concludes, “we started making a 24-decade history of popular music.”
9:59 a.m. Singing anthems of radical lesbianism, Mac invites activist Sarah Schulman onstage to read the Lesbian Avenger Manifesto.
11:04 a.m. In the final hour, before we stumble out into a rainy Sunday, Mac, for the first time, abandons covers and performs original songs. His collaborators have left, and he’s alone onstage. Except not really — because we’re all here too.