Dragged through the Decades: Taylor Mac at the Curran

The newly renovated Curran Theater in San Francisco looks more like a venue to see a broadway show than a radically boundary pushing one, but on Friday September 15th I found myself looking down from the mezzanine at the most ostentatious scene I had ever witnessed. Taylor Mac (who uses the pronoun “judy”) is the mastermind behind A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, a 24 hour decade-by-decade look at America through popular songs from 1776 to 2016. Mac, an actor, singer-songwriter, and performance artist presents a drag musical that takes a raw and unapologetically pointed look into the oppressive history of America all while impressively balanced on six inch heels.

The show, performed in full succession for 24 hours in New York City last year, was split into four six-hour segments for its debut on the west coast. Each hour was a chapter of a story woven by Mac and peppered with themed songs from the decade of focus. Each was  kicked off with a new dazzling costume, handmade by costume designer Machine Dazzle, intended to fit the theme of each decade. At the start of the second hour, 1786, Mac emerged from behind a gauzy curtain wearing nothing but a jewel encrusted barrel, a shimmering tutu, and matching stilettos, belting famous drinking songs of the era. Judy’s helpers, known as “dandy minions”, passed out free beer, which the audience much appreciated, and ping pong balls to those who were not drinking, so as to get the audience in the jovial spirit. I was lucky that a friend drove so I got to enjoy the free refreshments. My friend still had plenty of fun doing as Mac instructed and trying to shoot a ping-pong ball from her mouth to another non-drinkers in a different row. The 246 songs in the show were arranged by Music Director Matt Ray, who also led each number. Each decade concluded with one member of the 24-piece orchestra, including everything from harp to flute to electric guitar, leaving the stage until at the very end of the show, Mac was left alone onstage.

I saw the show’s first chapter spanning from 1776 to 1836. It was described as covering “the American Revolution from the perspective of the yankee doodle dandy, the early women’s-lib movement, an epic battle between drinking songs and early temperance songs, a dream sequence where the audience is blindfolded, and the heteronormative narrative as colonization.” Although Taylor Mac is the successful author of seventeen plays, Pulitzer Prize finalist for drama, and recipient of multiple awards, the show’s organization and pizzaz came as much from the orchestra, costumes, and “dandy minions” passing out props and interacting personally with the audience, as it did from Mac judyself. The show would not have been nearly as entertaining if it were not for the extravagant presentation.

Despite the lack of an official intermission, the host encouraged the audience to take breaks and come and go as needed. On one such trip to the restroom after the third hour, I passed a line of 24 mannequins. All were naked except for three which were clothed in the costumes from the decades already covered. I made a return trip after the show to see all six costumes worn by Taylor Mac on display. The freedom to come and go made Mac work hard for every single audience members attention. This investment in audience enjoyment translated into an engaging show and made its six hour duration much less daunting.

Mac went to great lengths to keep the audience entertained through interaction between us and the narrative itself. In the opening decade, the audience was split into sections to mimic the going-ons of 1776. The balcony was given lists of senators names to tear up and throw as confetti, while the mezzanine complained loudly about wanting to be in a different country, and the main floor danced to celebrate the victory of independence. Towards the end of the show the audience was asked to spend an hour blindfolded as the main character in the “heteronormative musical jukebox narrative” Mac created lost his eyesight in the war of 1812. Blind musical chairs, grape feeding to strangers, and flower smelling ensued, lifting the somber tone of the war and impending Indian Removal Act. The show’s heavy reliance on audience interaction kept the six hour experience from becoming too dull.

However, as is bound to happen in such a long endeavor, parts of it, especially the second to last hour dragged (no pun intended), and it was easy to lose the train of the narrative Taylor Mac created as judy wove through different historical events and songs of the decade. When asked about the most interesting decade in American history I doubt many people immediately jump to the 1820s—I certainly don’t.  It is a testament to judy’s captivation that members of the audience made an effort to get back on track and didn't allow themselves to zone out even during these less than memorable years.

As Taylor Mac sought to expose the xenophobia and inequality in America, the irony of the demographic of the audience is not lost on judy. I was surrounded by white, young adults, many who were members of the LGBTQ community, which is hardly a surprising lot at a drag musical in the Bay Area. Instead of pretending not to notice the lack of diversity, judy pointed it out and used it as a chance to further press the point of the inherent problem with understanding between groups throughout the history of the United States.

Although the show has left San Francisco, the West Coast hasn’t seen the last of it. A 24-Decade History of Popular Music will be presented in the same format of four shortened segments in Los Angeles from March 15 to 24. I would have loved the opportunity to participate in (because it is much more than just watching) all four shows, especially the third installment, which includes the rise of jazz and the blues. However, sitting through all 24 hours can seem daunting, so I am happy that Taylor Mac successfully entertains and imparts plenty of knowledge on his audience through just six. Given the chance, I absolutely recommend being immersed in this show. Despite its length, the experience, and hopefully new perspective, is well worth the hours. At the very least you will emerge with a great story, some glitter, and maybe even a souvenir or two.