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Reviews NYCOff-Broadway Published 19 October 2016

Review: A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: 1900–1950s

St. Ann's Warehouse ⋄ 8th - 9th October 2016

Kev Berry remembers “the greatest day of my life” with Taylor Mac.

Kev Berry
A gargantuan celebration. Photo: Teddy Wolff

A gargantuan celebration. Photo: Teddy Wolff

One of the first things judy said was, “Gird your pussies.” And so, I say the same to you: “Gird your pussies.” This is going to be long. Appropriately so.

It’s Saturday, October 8. I wake up after exactly seven hours and fifteen minutes of sleep. I shower, barely able to contain how amped up I am. My ampeduppedness makes my Havanese, Rosie, anxious. Either that, or she’s still out of it after a bout of canine bronchitis. I dress: skinny jeans and the top. We’ll get to the top in a bit. I zip up a sweatshirt and slip on flip-flops, and make sure everything I’ll need for the next 30 hours is in the pineapple. Again, we’ll get there. I grab the shag fur vest. I grab the heels, which collectively weigh three pounds. I say goodbye to my dad and dog, and head to the bagel place. I am currently on a very strict diet (no bread, no cheese, no alcohol) for a show I am performing in this December. Today is one of my cheat days, so I get a glorious bacon, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwich on a whole wheat bagel and a jug of iced coffee. I finish the bagel in the car. I switch out the sandals for the heels and the sweatshirt for the vest. I carefully apply a shock of bright red lipstick and smear glitter above my eyes. “Alright,” I think to myself. “Almost ready.” I step out of my car, and climb the stairs to the Long Island Railroad platform.

There is a certain amount of internalized shame that comes along with growing up gay on Long Island. I have not been able to clearly communicate my experience in my writing in a way that is clear to non-queer, non-Long Islanders; only those who have lived it understand what I am trying to get across. Anything beyond a pink pastel Vineyard Vines polo makes you fruity. Painting your nails makes you a fag. Keeping that in mind, what, pray tell, does standing on a train platform in stilettos each covered in a pound and a half of gemstones, black skinny jeans, nipple pasties cut from a roll of bacon-print duct tape, a mesh club kid tee overlaid with a tank top with the logo for a gay hookup app emblazoned across its chest, a white faux shag fur vest, and heart-shaped sunglasses make me? I’ll tell you. It makes me a motherfucking Queen.

The train comes, and luckily, it’s Comic Con, so I am actually dressed rather conservatively. I sit down and pull out more gemstones and superglue. I start to apply the gemstones to my hands and body with the superglue. A lot of superglue. Three tubes later, my hands look like I’m wearing Michael Jackson gloves, and my cohesive look is complete.

I transfer at Jamaica Station, where, as I cross the train platform, I hear the conductor who is leaning out of the window of the cockpit of the train call me a fag. I had paused the pump-up music I was listening to (Gloria Estefan) just in case anyone decided to heckle me. I turn and look the conductor dead in the eyes. I give him a do not fuck with me look, and he leans back inside the window, seemingly unashamed at having been caught casually tossing a slur at a stranger.

At Atlantic Terminal, I catch the Manhattan-bound 2 train, and onboard a hoard of tourists take photos of me on their smartphones, seemingly dumbfounded by their first experience with a queer person in low drag. I take off the sunglasses and smile for their photos, while thinking, “This better be worth it.”

I get off the train at Clark Street, and on my walk down an interminable hill, a woman points at me and with what is either a smile or a grimace says, “Those fucking shoes!

I turn the corner at the bottom of the hill, and there it is: St. Ann’s Warehouse, in Dumbo, Brooklyn. I inhale and smile and round the corner towards the lobby entrance. I see my friend, Jack. “You look fantastic!” he tells me. I tell him I’ll see him inside and I strut inside, ready for the show. I pick up my ticket and wristband. I greet friends and find a seat, third row on the aisle, house left. The house slowly fills up. The air is thick with anticipation.

At just past noon, music director and genius Matt Ray enters to a standing ovation from the crowd of over 600. He turns and leads the orchestra in the overture to the greatest day of my life.

Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music had begun.

Taylor opens the show with Amazing Grace. Photo: Teddy Wolff

Taylor opens the show with Amazing Grace. Photo: Teddy Wolff

Though I am going to spend the rest of this article attempting to put into words what I experienced October 8th and 9th, I shall only be scratching the surface. The concert, which spanned 24 hours, from noon on Saturday until noon on Sunday, was the most profound experience I’ve had in my nearly 24 years on Earth, and will surely remain the experience to which I aspire as an artist and human for the rest of my life. Even a week later, as I finish editing this article, my heart is beating just a little faster as I type, my mind vividly flashing back to the greatest day of my life.

Before moving on, I should clarify that Mac’s preferred gender pronoun is “judy, not capitalized unless it begins a sentence” because “you can’t roll your eyes and say judy without being camp.” Mac explained about halfway through the concert that judy’s gender is “performer.” Spend 24 hours with Mac and you won’t be arguing that judy isn’t performer.

Taylor Mac, the incomparable performance artist, has spent the last five years creating a nearly indescribable dream.

The concept is as follows: an endurance-based concert that tells a queer, entirely subjective history of America through the popular music of each of the 24 decades. Each decade is celebrated or reviled through a dedicated hour of music, and each hour the number of musicians onstage decreases by one so that, by hour/decade 24, the 23-piece orchestra has left Taylor alone onstage with judy’s ukulele. The performer, show and audience are supposed to slowly deteriorate across the 24 hours and come together as one radical faerie community who will encourage each other to forget about sitting down, and instead, get up and play. Taylor would explain later that the performance is a giant metaphor for the victims of the AIDS epidemic who struggled to keep together in the face of such massive suffering. In a similar vein, this is why I chose my attire for the day. I wanted to dress in a way that would mirror the concert’s length, endurance, and deterioration. Taylor has a quote from judy’s show The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac, which I listen to on my iPhone religiously, where judy says, “Pieces of me will fall off over the course of this evening.”

The overture ends. Taylor enters from the back of the house. Another standing ovation that is interrupted when Taylor launches into “Amazing Grace,” but it’s not your grandmother’s “Amazing Grace.” This is a fucking punk rock “Amazing Grace,” this is the opening that this show deserves, this is the opening that tells the audience: We’re not fucking around, this isn’t going to be the American Songbook, this is going to be Taylor Mac’s Great American Songbook.

We’d only just begun.

Over the course of the next several hours, there is a dizzying amount of patriotism, which we learn is, among other things, based on hating Congress and loving black hair. There is a lightning-fast rendition of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” that serves as a peek into British homophobia. There is a beautiful queer love story based on the first women’s lib movement. There is a jukebox musical of songs from 1806-1836 that tells a queer Native American love story. We are blindfolded for an hour and a half. “If you peek, think about the shame you’ll feel the next time you see a blind person and think about how you couldn’t even do it for an hour,” Taylor warns us. During this blindfolded set (and at Taylor’s instruction) I am teased with a flower by the old man in front of me, who eventually sits on my lap and whispers into my ear, “You like my flower, little boy? I’ll show you my special bloom.” This is the only time during the entire concert where I feel truly uncomfortable and want it to end. I feed my neighbor a grape as he feeds me a grape. And I and the audience stumble around the gigantic warehouse in an enormous game of blindfolded musical chairs.

Taylor changed into this outfit while we were all blindfolded. Photo: Teddy Wolff

Taylor changed into this outfit while we were all blindfolded. Photo: Teddy Wolff

At 6 o’clock in the evening, I buy my first cup of coffee. There is an hour devoted to the abolitionist movement, which problematically focuses on the white abolitionists and not the enslaved blacks. This hour is told with the use of Eric Avery’s gorgeous and intricately detailed puppets, which are three-dimensional and which each require at least three puppeteers to operate.

The 8 o’clock hour is devoted to an epic smackdown between Stephen Foster, the supposed Father of American Song, and Walt Whitman, the poet who Taylor thinks ought to be the Father of American Song. A makeshift boxing ring is assembled onstage, and an unsuspecting audience member is sat onstage for the hour, playing a proxy of Foster. Mac plays Whitman, to glorious effect. The smackdown is structured into four rounds of boxing, with the audience deciding who wins each round by screaming “O Captain, my Captain” in support of Whitman or a nonsense phrase from one of Foster’s songs in support of…Foster. Taylor would sing a Foster song or two, and recite a soaring rendition of one of Whitman’s poems, and then the audience would vote. The loser (always Foster) had ping-pong balls pelted at him by the audience. At the top of Round 2, entitled “Minstrel Dance Vs. Interpretive Dance,” Taylor comes to my section of the audience, looks at me, and says “You, in the vest, come up here.” I stand up.

I just need to tell you that Taylor Mac is my hero. Everything about judy’s work has inspired and altered and affected and affirmed my work. Judy’s work is fearless, judy’s work is fiery, judy’s work is politically engaged, judy’s work is thoroughly researched, and most of all, judy tells queer narratives with such crisp clarity and tries to push the queer narrative and the gay agenda to the top of everyone’s Facebook feeds and strives to see a day where queer narratives are being told onstage in equal amounts to their straight counterparts. Taylor Mac is a fierce performer whose sense of humor has worked its way into mine, and into my plays. So to be looked at by Taylor Mac and told, “You, in the vest, come up here,” is one of the most important things to have ever happened to me. A dream come true within a day that was a dream come true and a dream from which I feel I still haven’t woken.

“You, in the vest, come up here. You, too, behind him, yes, good, yes.” My new friend and I are made, like many of the audience participants in the play, to feel rather uncomfortable as Taylor directs us “to do interpretive dance to the Whitman poems, and well, to the Foster songs; dance like minstrels would.” Worried about offending someone with my minstrel dancing, I start off slowly, literally interpreting the words to the Foster song. Then I realize that this is the only time I’d ever get to dance to my hero singing live, so I put offending someone out of my mind, and throw myself joyfully into the dance with my entire body and heart, to the cheers of the crowd. At one point, I look out into the crowd and nearly become teary-eyed, wishing I could convey to the audience how important this one tiny, three-minute slice of the performance is to me. We continue interpreting the Whitman, playing as clouds and fish and smutty beasts. Yes, we simulate sex onstage in front of over 650 people. There is one final Foster refrain, and my friend and I are greeted with a loud ovation, and we return to the floor.

Taylor singing Foster and reciting Whitman as I danced onstage. Photo: Teddy Wolff

Taylor singing Foster and reciting Whitman as I danced onstage. Photo: Teddy Wolff

Oh, yes. The floor. I should mention that after we removed our blindfolds, we stacked all of the chairs at the back and sides of the warehouse, and sat on pillows on the floor for the next 6 hours, and then were back on the floor for another 6 hours after dinner.

After my dance participation, the audience is divided into the Union and the Confederacy as we dive headfirst into the Civil War. We are directed by Taylor to have several slow-motion battles and dirtily fight our way into the opposite side’s camps. Our only weapons? Our ping-pong balls. Oddly enough, this simulated war has a profound effect on the audience, and we really fight as hard as we can.

Dinner time. 9 o’clock. Taylor instructs us to set the banquet tables, pulled out from under the stage, while he takes one of his few bathroom and water breaks. We eat a healthy vegetarian dinner supplied by the theatre, but served by fellow audience members who made up the temporary labor union “The Brothers of the Plow.” Meanwhile a female acrobatic troupe performs and Taylor launches into a version of The Mikado set on Mars. The finale to this stomach-achingly funny neon and black light Marskado has one hilariously game audience member repeating “Tit Willow” over and over until Taylor is satisfied, and even then, only barely. The delirium sets in as we replace the tables under the stage and are doled out pillows and sleeping bags for the Oklahoma Land Rush. Taylor’s rendition of what judy has in the past called the worst song in the history of the entire project, “After the Ball,” has the audience mumbling along; we all know this very famous song, but we are becoming too tired to sing along, so instead, we mumble.

The next several decades of the show are relaxing ones designed to let the audience chill out during what would normally be our sleeping hours. Brilliant. We listen to songs from the Jewish Tenements of the Lower East Side, and to quiet renditions of lovely songs from World War I, a decade during which all of the men in the audience aged 14 to 40 are invited onstage to essentially cuddle, like the soldiers in the trenches would to keep warm. It is incredibly comforting. We are sent back to our pillows and sleeping bags after a performance of “Keep the Home Fires Burning” that is so intense I begin to uncontrollably shake.

It’s the Roaring ‘20s, it’s 2 in the morning. Taylor reads from Ulysses.

It’s the Depression, it’s 3 in the morning. Taylor feeds us split pea soup and freshly baked rolls.

And then, it’s 4 in the goddamned morning and Taylor Mac has been performing for 16 hours without a break.

We cheer for him. Those of us who are still awake, at least. I grab another cup of coffee and return to my seat just in time for the one song I’d been waiting for all day and night.

Taylor says, “We’re going to do the hardest song in the entire History of Popular Music right now. I don’t know who decided to put it this late in the show, but here we are.” This is what those among us in the know have been anticipating for 16 hours. “Soliloquy,” from Carousel. We hold our collective breath and hold in our whoops and hollers so as not to wake those sleeping on the floor around us. This is a moment I simultaneously remember in its entirety and a moment I don’t believe actually happened. It is a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream. Taylor sings one of the hardest and most emotional arias in all of musical theatre history, full voice and full throttle, after having been performing for 16 hours without break and with 8 still to go. I realize it is beginning, and I lean forward and slowly let my jaw drop to the floor as judy begins to absolutely slay the song.  At song’s end, there is a raucous extended standing ovation from those of us lucky enough to have been conscious for what may have been the greatest live performance of any song I’ve ever been privileged enough to see and hear. It is while cheering for this song that I realize I am beginning to lose my voice.

Finally, at 6 in the morning, the chairs are brought back. Sleepily, with sore backs, we sit in our chairs and enact white flight to the suburbs, and the birth of the young queer and their parade to the city. I am sat next to a woman still wearing a wig Taylor and his dandy minions (an army of 40 performance artists in their own right who assisted Taylor and the audience over the course of the 24 hours) had doled out in hour one, and two older gay gentlemen, who were two of the sweetest and kindest people I’ve ever met, one of whom tells me he wished he were brave enough to have worn what I wore to the concert out in public when he was my age. Taylor introduces Stephanie Christi’an and Thornetta Davis, two vocalists from Detroit with more pipes than the organ at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. They join Taylor on an hour of music from the Civil Rights Movement, including a floor-shaking, on-your-feet romp called (I think) “Freedom Ride to Washington,” which garners another crazy standing ovation.  This time, most of us are awake to applaud. We cheer. Our clapping is interrupted by a booming beat from the lobby. Drums. Trumpets. Trombones. A marching band parades in. They play an invigorating two-song set with judy. The audience loses its mind – either from how great this marching band is, or because most of us have been awake and singing and dancing for 18 hours at this point. At the end of the second song, the band exits and judy stands at the lip of the stage, down center. There is a five-minute standing ovation as we give the team all of the support and energy they’ve earned over the last nineteen hours, and over the last five years of this project’s development. The look on judy’s face makes the intense pain my feet are in from wearing three and a half inch stilettos for 17.5 hours worth it.

“We still have five hours to go,” Taylor quiets the ovation through laughter.

If you’ve never had a gigantic inflatable dirigible Puerto Rican penis come flying at you at 8am on a Sunday, have you even lived? That is my immediate thought as Taylor launches into the 21st hour of the concert. This decade, which outlined the years between 1976 and 1986 is all about the backroom sex parties and the birth of the AIDS crisis. Taylor sings an earth-shattering “Purple Rain,” which I will never be able to listen to in quite the same way again. About halfway through the decade, a gigantic (literally the size of a subway car) inflatable dirigible penis, marked with what appeared to be the Puerto Rican flag, falls over the audience and crowdsurfs its way to the lobby.

Taylor sings Purple Rain. Photo: Teddy Wolff

Taylor sings Purple Rain. Photo: Teddy Wolff

The 9am hour begins Act 8, the final 3 decades of the performance. Direct Action: which deals with AIDS head on. Radical Lesbians: which deals with activism in the 1990s. And Originals: which deals with today and tomorrow. During Direct Action, 1986-1996, Taylor sings my favorite Patti Smith song, “The People Have The Power.” And suddenly, it begins to make sense. During Radical Lesbians, Taylor sings Bitch & Animal’s “Pussy Manifesto,” which, to my surprise, most of the audience knows. (“Pussy Manifesto, Pussy Manifesto, Pussy Pussy Pussy Manifesto! Manifest this, Motherfucker Number 1!”) And during Originals, the final hour of the show, Taylor wonders “What do you do after creating a twenty-four hour show?”

11:30am. Sunday. Taylor performs his original song, “The Rank and File Queer,” written in the wake of the Pulse Orlando attack this past June. It is impossible to listen to without crying. “It’s about us in this room. We have a lot of history on our backs and we have to figure out what to do with it.” While we may not know how to fix our fucked-up world quite yet, Taylor reminds us that, in the words and music of Patti Smith, “The people have the power.”

At noon, it ends.

A standing ovation so immediate and so deserved the lights aren’t even completely snapped out in the final blackout before the audience is on its feet screaming and banging the chairs on the floor because simply clapping is an inadequate showcase of our appreciation to Taylor for having made it through this beast of a show.

In the lobby, I say my goodbyes to the warm and loving community I had met over the course of the day, people of all stars and stripes. We give hugs and kisses, cry and laugh, and promised to add each other on Facebook and to see each other soon. However, this isn’t a vapid “I hope to see you soon” type of thing. This is an event that I will remember for the rest of my life: every face and every voice I encountered across the 24 hours. The type of event where I will be going up to people in theatre lobbies in the future saying “This is completely random, but I think we were at the Taylor Mac marathon together.” One of the dandies, an older gentleman, gives me a huge hug and tells me I am fabulous. These are the last words I heard as I stride out into the rain.

The author outside St. Ann's Warehouse before the show.

Kev Berry outside St. Ann’s Warehouse before the show.

On my walk to the subway, I think about it all. How to condense this experience into words. I think about Machine Dazzle’s endlessly creative and witty costumes, all 24 he created for Taylor and the infinite amount he created for the Dandy Minions. I think about Mimi Lien’s set and John Torres’s lights and James McElhenny and David Schnirman’s sublime sound. About Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s choreography. About how co-director Niegel Smith’s vividly clear grasp on the shape the event was supposed to take. It is raining and I look like a complete faggot as I walk back to the Clark Street Station. Inside, though, I am alive. Inside, though, I am living. Inside, though, I am a motherfucking queen.

I am on the Long Island Railroad home, struggling to stay awake. A mother and her two young kids look at me as I stand to exit the train. The mother looks at me, her eyes lingering somewhere between vague and intense disdain. I look at her young son, who is looking back at me in my 30-hours later drag adjacency, and tell him, “You can be anything you want to be,” just before I disembark back into reality.

Have you ever been so tired you’re not sure how you’re still standing? Have you ever been so exhausted that you don’t care what the people laughing at you think as you stumble through the rain? If only they knew what you had just experienced. If only they knew that you spent the last 240 years with a ferocious navigator leading judy’s fleet through history the song.

When I sit down on the LIRR as I begin my commute home, I plug my phone into one of the outlets as I wait for the train to depart Atlantic Terminal. No service. I start to draft a mass text to all of my friends to tell them about the concert, but I start to cry. Any attempt to boil the entire experience down into a single text, into a single document, into a single 4100+ word article still couldn’t do Taylor justice. Even now, as I type this sentence, I feel like I am inadequately serving Taylor’s masterpiece. “Fuck it,“ I think. “I’ll sleep on it, and tell them about it tomorrow.”

When I get home, I shower.

When I get home, I grill a burger.

I sit on an armchair in my living room after eating.

I accidentally fall asleep.

An hour later, I wake up, with a gasp so severe, Nassau County experiences tremors on the Richter Scale.

I am shocked that it is somehow still Sunday, and am rather pissed off that I let myself fall asleep.

I throw my laundry into the machine, and sit on my phone, checking my e-mail.

I shower again.

My feet are killing me.

It’s 5pm.

I put my laundry in the dryer and see if I can sing a song I have to memorize for a show in two weeks.

I can’t sing, I have no voice.

I fall asleep until 11pm.

I shower again.

I fold my laundry.

I sleep for 10 hours.

I dream of the dream I dreamt, and dream about the dreams I had while dreaming the dream I dreamt. What? Yeah.

I woke up on Monday morning, and I couldn’t feel my feet.

I woke up on Monday morning, and I had a medley of “Camptown Ladies,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy” at lightning speed, and “Blood Makes Noize” stuck in my head.

I woke up on Monday morning after getting 16 hours of sleep.

I woke up on Monday morning and somehow had to navigate that this was the first day of my life.

There was life before the Marathon, and there is a New Life after.

I woke up on Monday morning, and cried. The dream was over, the dream came true. I am irreparably changed. I wonder if in the writing of this article, which I am now concluding behind a haze of joyfulgratefulhopeful tears, I have been able to clearly communicate my experience living through this concert in a way that is accessibly to those outside of the 650-strong community with whom I spent last weekend. If I haven’t, I think It can be summed up in two sentences:

Where do you go once you’ve had the greatest day of your life?

You get up, and you go out and play.

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Kev Berry is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Review: A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: 1900–1950s Show Info


Directed by Taylor Mac and Niegel Smith

Written by Taylor Mac

Link stannswarehouse.org

Running Time 24 hours

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