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Ping-pong balls and 'displaced hussies': Taylor Mac's 24-hour epic begins in Melbourne

Taylor Mac
Taylor Mac in 24-Decade History of Popular Music (Chapter one) in Melbourne. Photograph: Sarah Walker

Five hours into Taylor Mac’s extravaganza the performer blindfolds us all.

“You’re going to be blind for the next hour. If you peek I will publicly shame you,” Mac says casually. “Oh, also – and I don’t imagine it will be a problem, but in America we have to say this – if you hear gunfire, take your fucking blindfold off.”

It’s an alarming warning for an arts festival crowd, but at this point of the 24-hour show – a masterful and moving magnum opus titled A 24-Decade History of Popular Music – we’re willing to go with it.

I put on the eye mask and the kaleidoscopic chaos of the last 300 minutes recedes into darkness.

Taylor Mac
Taylor Mac is suspended above the crowd in 24-Decade History of Popular Music. Photograph: Sarah Walker

Written by and starring Mac – a singer, drag performer and playwright, and a legend among the New York queer and theatre scene – A 24-Decade History weaves cabaret, commentary and comedy through 10 popular songs of each decade, from 1776 to the present day, one decade performed per hour. Mac recasts the making of America to celebrate the outsiders, real and imagined, from women to queer groups to First Nations people; from eccentric visionaries to artistic revolutionaries. It’s a queering of American history.

The show involves more than 150 performers, including an orchestra and a choir, but it’s Mac who is in the spotlight for the duration – singing, storytelling, improvising and acting through 24 hours and 23 costume changes.

The durational feat has only been performed once in full with only toilet breaks: a delirious day and night at St Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn last October, which was described by the Guardian quite simply as “everything”. Nominated for a Pulitzer, the work was so impossible to categorise it ranked in not one but three of the New York Times’ best-of-year lists. The Times’ reviewer described it as “one of the great experiences of my life”. That’s a lot of hype to live up to.

Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History
Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History was nominated for a Pulitzer. Photograph: Sarah Walker

Mac has called the St Ann’s Warehouse performance a one-time-only deal; in Melbourne, A 24-Decade History is being presented in four six-hour chunks, with the final performance next Friday night. It’s the first time the full show has been performed outside of the US: “If you’re Australian, you won’t understand a single thing that happens,” Mac jokes to the 600 of us in the audience.

Mac is a warm, funny and charismatic host, with a voice that can lift a crowd out of their chairs with one chorus, and twist up their hearts with the next. Each hour, for each new decade, Mac – who goes by the pronoun “judy” changes into a new fantastical outfit created by friend and fellow performer Machine Dazzle. Initially joined by a full orchestra, backing singers and a live knitting circle (the most revolutionary thing you can do is keep creating, Mac explains), after each hour at least one performer is lost from the stage. And on the final night next Friday, Mac will perform the last song – an original – alone.

The first chapter, performed on Wednesday night, takes us from the declaration of independence in 1776 to the Indian removal act of the 1830s. I approached this with scepticism: would ye olde folk songs really sustain us for six full hours? But the arrangements are modern and lively, often moving and occasionally hilarious.

Performed lasciviously by Mac, Yankee Doodle Dandy becomes exceptionally rude. Auld Lang Syne is sung by a temperance choir, as the audience hurls ping-pong balls at them. The alphabet song is delivered by a backing singer with so much soul and emotion that some people actually stand for it, and those sea shanties and folk ballads I was worried about were popular for a reason.

Meow Meow surfs the crowd.
Dandy Minions carry guest performer Meow Meow around the Forum to entertain us during one of Taylor Mac’s costume changes. Photograph: Sarah Walker

Mac describes A 24-Decade History as a “radical faery realness ritual sacrifice”. “The gathering of the people, that’s the ritual; the audience is the sacrifice”. And that’s the other thrill of the show: the (forced) participation.

Led by Timothy White Eagle, a member of the US production, a troupe of Melbourne drag and queer performers titled the Dandy Minions pull us from the audience, handing out props and drag costumes and performing “random acts of fabulousness”. Mac reigns over all as the puppet-master.

The front row are asked to flaunt their bodies at the crowd, before being made to swap seats with each other for the rest of the show “because hussies in America get displaced”. A group of us are handed paper listing the men who made up America’s first government, and are asked to rip it up and throw it into the air like confetti.

We’re given apples to share, beer to drink, ping-pong balls to pass from one mouth to another and back again. Men with beards are asked to strip; people with vomit stories are handed a microphone. You get out of it what you put in.

It’s chaos, but it’s mostly controlled; at intervals, Mac gets the increasingly rambunctious crowd to breathe in together and then say “shhhh” en masse. It quietens us down like magic.

At one hysterical moment early on, performer James “Tigger” Ferguson, who is dressed as a baby, strips down to nothing and hurls himself through the audience shouting “Nudie baby!”. He jumps on chairs and humps tables, jiggling his bits at us, as two ticket-holders are enlisted to catch him and put his clothes back on.

Apparently this is a metaphor for Congress. Everything is a metaphor for something. It makes more sense in the moment. Well, marginally more sense.

Nudie baby
James ‘Tigger’ Ferguson, flanked by two audience members who aren’t yet aware he’s about to get nude. Photograph: Sarah Walker

The scale of the stage show makes the hour we’re blindfolded all the more meaningful: so much is happening up there, and we’re not allowed to look at it. We’re being sung through the decade from 1816–1826: America has just won its second and final war against the British, and is building itself a new national identity.

“Since we don’t have what we thought was good for us – which was the British way of being in the world – we’re going to focus on what we do have,” Mac explains wryly. And so we, the blind audience, as stand-ins for America, focus on our senses: smell, touch, taste and sound.

From somewhere behind me, a Dandy Minion hands me a flower. I twirl it in front of my nose and breathe in. We use our flowers to flirt with people around us; the delightful Scottish woman next to me, who knew all the words to the drinking songs, can’t stop giggling as I brush the petals across her face.

I clumsily feed her a grape, and she feeds me one in return, before we sit back to simply listen to the music.

Audience at A 24-Hour Decade
‘We, the blind audience as stand-ins for America, focus on our senses: smell, touch, taste and sound.’ Photograph: Sarah Walker

When Mac plays a rousing, wonderfully orchestrated rendition of Coal Black Rose, I lift the corner of my blindfold to take a peek at the audience: the whole room in front of me is into it, tapping their hands on their thighs, swaying their bodies with the kind of abandon that only comes with darkness.

The song draws one of the biggest applauses of the night – before being brutally undercut.

“No, don’t applaud that one,” Mac says. “It was actually one of the first ever minstrel songs – and I’m not sure if you picked up the lyrics.”

Mac then reads us each verse of the sea shanty, about a group of sailors hauling the yard of a mast to steer their boat to dock.

But in this interpretation, once they get there, they’re going to gang rape a slave: “Strung up like a banjo, taut an’ long / Oh, me Rosie, coal black Rose”.

The impact is devastating.

Taylor Mac
‘A celebration of queerness’: Mac in one of the 24 spectacular costumes. Photograph: Sarah Walker

The show has moments that break through the joy, but above all else it’s a celebration of queerness – and many from the queer community are in the audience. (“We hiss instead of applauding because we’re afraid of the clap,” Mac says cheerfully.) But the first tickets released were for the full suite, at $700 a pop (you can now buy $200 tickets to each of the final chapters), and it’s not a concert everyone can afford – so the demographic is split.

“We are in mixed company here, and when you’re in mixed company, it gets a little weird when you do things from the queer world,” Mac says. “We don’t do it so people can point at us and say, ‘Oh god, look, it’s so odd.’ We do it so we can break the social contract … We do it to open you up, and open each other up.”

And later: “A drag queen can introduce you to your shame.”

In six hours of the first chapter, Mac did just that. We were confronted with our country’s violent history and present, as much as that of America. We encountered the racism, homophobia and sexism that has formed the modern world, and faced up to the people we have left behind. Mac satirised whitewashing, appropriation, slavery and stolen generations; blasted Harvey Weinstein; teased Nicole Kidman; and called Australia an “asshole” for stalling on marriage equality. And we’re only six hours in.

The communal endurance of A 24-Decade History is intended to reflect the capacity of people to forge new futures together after being torn apart. “I want the show to be so long that the audience is falling apart, I’m falling apart, we’re all falling apart and we’re also building bonds,” Mac told the Guardian last month.

Whether it will have the same effect in six-hour blocks as it did that day in Brooklyn remains to be seen. But I’ll be in it for the long haul.

• Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music continues on Friday 13 October, Wednesday 18 October and Friday 20 October, as part of Melbourne festival. Guardian Australia travelled to Melbourne as a guest of the festival

This article titled "Ping-pong balls and 'displaced hussies': Taylor Mac's 24-hour epic begins in Melbourne" was written by Steph Harmon, for theguardian.com on Thursday 12 October 2017 05.45am

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