Taylor Mac, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: 1900–1950s, 2015. Performance view, New York Live Arts, New York, January 20, 2015. Taylor Mac (right). Photo: Ian Douglas.

“MY GENDER IS PERFORMER,” a bedazzling Taylor Mac announced to a sold-out audience at New York Live Arts. “My pronoun,” he twinkled, “is judy.” Looking like the love-child of Rosalind Russell and a leopard-print-obsessed Lubavitcher, with eyes lashed like Venus flytraps, Mac launched into a six-hour marathon performance of songs and stories of the 1900s to the 1950s—a preview of sorts of his forthcoming opus, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music. Written by Mac, the show reads music history to double as a chronicle of sex, repression, expression, and community, and “to remind people what they’ve dismissed, forgotten, or buried.” In the case of pop music, Mac reveals that what has been dismissed, forgotten, or buried are the traumas—both personal and political—from which some of the world’s best-loved songs have emerged. In 2016, he is slated to perform over a century’s worth of them in a twenty-four-hour event.

Taylor Mac is a master performer, riveting storyteller, and charismatic, otherworldly creature, dressed to the tens in artist/designer Machine Dazzle’s magnificent metamorphic glitz. From New York’s Jewish Tenements at the turn-of-the-century through the World Wars and up through the 1950s, Mac moved through history one decade an hour, schooling us in the knife twists at the heart of his songbook. He tells us that Teddy Roosevelt had the dissenting hit “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be A Soldier” rewritten to “It’s Time for Every Boy To Be A Soldier,” which helped sell Americans on World War I. Years later the man who purportedly wrote “You Are My Sunshine,” Paul Rice, sold the rights for thirty five dollars to pay for his dying wife’s medical expenses, and Jimmie Davis, who bought them, used his millions in royalties to underwrite his campaign for Governorship of Louisiana on a platform to preserve segregation in schools.

Not every lesson was a heavy one, and for all of the dark undertones, the show was face-wrenchingly funny. Mac jauntily deconstructed “Keep the Home Fires Burning” to re-canonize it as an early lesbian feminist anthem. (Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that he gave the plaintive ditty a good literary fisting.) Over the course of the afternoon and into the evening, Mac’s audience sang, danced, and performed alongside him as more wars erupted, and millions of people continued to be killed or marginalized in the name of rancid ideologies. Though this segment of A 24-Decade History took us just up to the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, it was no mystery to anyone what the future would hold. The pink triangles of the prison camps will surely reappear in three acts or so, and the band will play on.

Performance legend Ethyl Eichelberger once joked that under the Reagan administration, he only received NEA funding because he studied hairdressing at the beauty parlor Nancy Reagan had installed—“at your expense”—in The White House. In Obama’s America, the models for aggravated artistic survival have mellowed, even here in New York, though we live more and more in the withering shadows of empty glass high-rises. “I’m not trying to bite the hand that feeds me, NYLA,” Mac purred after criticizing the theater’s corporate-bunker-moderne aesthetic, “I’m just trying to get a little lipstick on it.” Throughout, he extols the virtues of audience discomfort, upending the safety of the fourth wall to include us all—sometimes willingly, other times awkwardly—in the act. Once upon a time, Hibiscus dropped acid, Divine ate dog shit, and Leigh Bowery spouted douche water from his ass onto his audience. Though nodding to such predecessors in style, judy’s drag is not anarchic; it’s diplomatic. Mac doesn’t terrorize. He reaches across the aisle, at times towing an unexpectedly therapeutic line for the crowd. “This is a performance-art concert,” he assured us more than once, “which means that everything you’re feeling is appropriate.”

Taylor Mac, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: 1900–1950s, 2015. Performance view, New York Live Arts, New York, January 20, 2015. Taylor Mac. Photo: Ian Douglas.

Toward the end of the show, Mac sat center stage and talked about the origins of his ambitious project. Growing up gay in Stockton, California, he explained, “I knew there was a Queer history, I just had no proof of it.” As a teenager, he heard about the AIDS Walk in San Francisco, but rather than seek sponsorship from family, friends, and neighbors, he used his paper-route money to sign up. He’d never met an out gay man in his life until the day he arrived in the city and saw thousands of them walking together. Some were visibly sick, others pushed their dying lovers in wheelchairs, but their rage, Mac remembered, remained powerful. Mac’s inevitable exhaustion and deterioration when he performs the full production of 24-Decade History is intended honor the exhaustion and deterioration of the gay community at the moment when the virus was ravaging so many of their lives.

The sharpest undercurrents of Mac’s 24-Decade History uncover “the popular” as a cultural force that cuts both ways. The center is a place of power, of presence. It is also, when unchallenged and unchecked, a site of surrender. Heteronormalizing, as Mac reminded his audience again and again, is not the same as equality; the most radical act is that of uncompromised being. “There’s something to me cowardly about taking Truvada instead of using a condom,” activist/playwright Larry Kramer said in an interview last year. “You’re taking a drug that is poison to you, and it has lessened your energy to fight, to get involved, to do anything.” To which writer Bran Addison replied: “Cheers, Mr. Kramer: I can’t wait to show my cowardice when, should it ever happen, the man I am dating discloses that he is positive and I have the pleasure of saying, ‘So what?’ ” Over time, generation gaps inevitably open and may never be filled. Mac’s enterprise—the re-injection of memory into the mainstream—inoculates against ignoring or forgetting what has been lost as well as what has been gained.

At one point, Mac asked everyone over fifty to stand up and dance; everyone younger was asked to choose one of those standing, look at them, and copy their moves. “Apparently in America,” he explained, “we don’t see people over fifty.” As the music played, the audience danced together, some shyly and others with abandon, until the song came to an end. After all, the show had to go on.

Jennifer Krasinski

Taylor Mac’s six-decade marathon performance from A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: 1900-1950s ran on January 25 at New York Live Arts as part of The Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival.

Ligia Lewis, Minor Matter, 2015. Performance view, Human Resources LA, Los Angeles, January 8, 2015. Photo: Sammy Loren.

THERE IS A PARTICULAR LOW, sustained rumble that is used in films to build suspense. Unlike the discordant stabs of a piano or frenetic strings that mark terror, this tone alerts us to danger’s nearness, lurking but not immediate.

In Ligia Lewis’s Minor Matter, which recently premiered at Human Resources LA, this sound announced performer Kenneth Nicholson’s rise from the floor.

Like the best science fiction, Lewis’s work is most successful in its insistence that the spare can be made spectacular. Nicholson began with a monologue delivered supine. Reporting on his view under the astringent gallery lights, the object of his description was marked by some distance. Nicholson, like the audience, stayed close to the ground: The ceiling was far from all of us. By us, I mean me and a generous crowd of bodies strewn across the room; some perched on small black cushions, almost all dressed with a certain cool lassitude, and a few with post-performance meals (from next-door Pho 87) at the ready. I caught one small boy passing his tongue in circles around his own mouth. He watched me watch him until I looked away.

The lights went out, then amber. Nicholson rose, his soliloquy continued. He spoke in dichotomies (“black, white; girl, boy; up, down”). He drew an imaginary line through the center of the stage, walking it. The division between “minor” and “major” was yelled, whispered, and intoned from various angles, and soon gave way to slippery reticulations—“minor” became “miner.” Digging furiously deeper, we moved toward imprecision.

Lewis, a Dominican-born and Berlin and LA-based performer and choreographer, has been working on sadness. Minor Matter follows her Sorrow Swag, shown at HRLA last October, which fuses Jean Anouilh’s translation of Antigone with Billie Whitelaw’s performance of Samuel Beckett’s Not I. Brian Getnick played the amalgam of tragic figures: one buried alive for civil disobedience, the other a lone, hysterical mouth.

Nicholson’s words were first brittle; he soon traded them for the gummier idiom of the body. We were more firmly in darkness now, and given a seductive beat: familiar pop songs chopped and screwed beyond recognition. (The music was scored and arranged by WYNN of Twin Shadow.) Exquisite, discandied undulations of torso and pelvis called to mind intimate public performances on the club floor, given to everybody and nobody but the collective effervescence. I felt like I shouldn’t be watching. I thought again of the boy licking his lips.

Then, a more palatable bit of soft shoe, acerbic barking, choreographed phrases, and more dialogue. Minorities, majorities, all of our complicities: Issues of race and representation were at the core of this work, which grew out of a two-part symposium at HRLA titled “Decolonizing the White Box.” Each shift proposed blackness as a form of embodiment to be elaborated and unsettled rather than calcified. That our bodies are always performing is true; Lewis asks what they are like when we hold terror and resistance side by side. Don’t give up your rage for anything, but watch how beautiful the light is, glinting off its shoulder.

Ligia Lewis, Minor Matter, 2015. Performance view, Human Resources LA, Los Angeles, January 8, 2015. Photo: Sammy Loren.

And if I have been talking about world-building, it is only because Nicholson makes his own cosmos. An entire passage of monologue was dedicated not to the description of his surroundings, but to the self: arms out, testing his stamina in an almost unbelievable number of revolutions, and dictating all the while, Nicholson became his own orbit. “I am still spinning,” he said. “I persevere,” he seemed to say.

With another change of light, to red, Nicholson moved to the corner. His voice—manipulated at the microphone—was deep, nebulous, and disconcerting. From within the syrupy, machinic drawl, Nicholson began what sounded like the end: “I am grateful to be here, in this white cube,” he said, “and isn’t that special.” Then he asked, “How did we go from this [Black Power fist] to this [hands up]?” The gestures were repeated at length, moving from the symbolic language of protest to something that looked much more like dance.

Boxes more like prisons than Brian O’Doherty’s famed cubes, I suppose, the former suggesting enclosure more so than shape. Amid all this I kept thinking of the pallid logic that structures our present and the ecstatic resilience it takes to image alternative futures. I thought of the art world’s whitewashing, a phrase which, aside from its chromatic associations, also connotes deception, a deliberate concealment—victory in a game in which the loser scores no points.

As if to leave things open to other endings—to unsanctioned burials, to insubordinate mouths—the performance finished with Nicholson singing a warbling song of mourning that stopped mid-sentence “whatever, whatev–”

Catherine Damman

Ligia Lewis’s Minor Matter was performed at Human Resources LA on January 8, 2015.