Taylor Mac—the tall, shaven-headed, glitter-eyebrowed performance artist who goes by the self-coined gender pronoun “judy”—is one of a kind, which means that a Taylor Mac show is almost certain to be a singular experience. A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, an enormously ambitious work in progress presented as part of The Public Theater’s Under the Radar festival, does not disappoint. Alternately welcoming and discomfiting as it either tells a story or hammers home a message, it’s perhaps the quintessence of performance art.
As Mac says in the show, “performance art” is unlike a more traditional scripted play in that it doesn’t depend on controlling the audience’s response. In A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: 1930s-1950s, a three-hour segment of the larger whole, the audience is intentionally, frequently, and self-consciously made uncomfortable, both physically and mentally. They’re also brought directly into the show’s inner workings in a way that’s much broader and deeper than the more usual “audience participation.” Mac isn’t telling you how to feel so much as encouraging you to think…even as judy’s also evicting you from your seat, making you sing, and segregating the audience by race and/or gender.
The 1930s-1950s segment will ultimately form hours 16 through 18 of a 24-hour concert in which each hour negotiates a path through popular music from a particular decade in American history, from 1776 to 2016, when the show will be complete. While the show draws from music either made or listened to in America, it’s not necessarily broadly popular music or even music that’s popular with a broad audience. In the show, the selected music for each decade serves as a metaphor for a particular community that was being forged or destroyed in that era. Mac also uses the metaphor of community to explain the arc of the overall show itself, in which the people in the room share an experience that forges them into a community that will inevitably and almost immediately disintegrate.
In the segments presented here, the communities are the down-and-out residents of flophouses during the Great Depression (1930s), white suburban queers (1950s), and, in a very intricate setup for the 1940s, Weimar cabaret artists interned in Nazi concentration camps and performing Hollywood tunes. The latter, which reaches outside America for the community and has a purely metaphorical connection between that community and the depicted music, is a bit of a stretch of the piece’s structural concept, but it’s weird and wonderful enough to work for the most part.
On the one hand, the piece thrives on its constant provocation. It can sometimes feel deliriously like riding in a car with someone who keeps poking you in the side, asking surreal variations on “Are we there yet?” But that provocation also digs into your brain until you start to genuinely think about the questions being asked, and offers you an overstuffed sensory experience that never lets up. It’s a mad fantasia of iconography through the costumes alone (designed by Machine Dazzle): a sequins-and-sackcloth ensemble Mac wears in the 1930s with spangled red high heels that evoke Dorothy’s ruby slippers; the glitter-encrusted SS armbands with which judy bedecks selected audience members; the 1950s wig made of curled 3D movie glasses; the concentration-camp-robe-meets-perky-housedress of the 1940s.
The piece packs in a sharp interrogation of global capitalism and of dominant cultural ethoi of every sort, alongside a solid set of musical performances by a strong six-piece band. Mac is a mesmerizing performer, in all judy’s modes: intimate storyteller, brash diva, quiet folk singer, in-your-face performance artist, agitprop provocateur.
Three hours feel a little overstuffed and exhausting, but in an exciting, messy, inspiredly chaotic, experimental, brash, gorgeously ambitious way. On top of all that, the larger project of community-building, of teasing out hidden identities behind the dominant American narrative, manages to exist, paradoxically, in a space between an oddly poignant irony and perfectly simple sincerity. By hour 16 of the full 24-hour, 24-decade piece, once it’s fully realized, you might be nearly comatose, transfixed and inspired, baffled or amazed—but, just like this segment, you’ll be having an experience not to be repeated.