Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Taylor Mac is a performance artist, actor, playwright, singer, recipient of a MacArthur "genius grant," and social provocateur. Washington's Kennedy Center kicked off its two-week "Direct Current" festival of contemporary culture March 6 with a single performance of Mac's A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: Abridged, and it's likely that no one in the audience at the Eisenhower Theater will ever forget the experience.
Mac, who performed in resplendent drag designed by cast member Machine Dazzle, was giving the Washington audience just a taste of this outrageous, exhilarating, exhausting, and thrilling work. At two and a half hours, the abridged performance is only a fragment of Mac's complete show, which runs 24 hours and includes 246 songs (and will be performed in two 12-hour parts in Philadelphia in June).
The purpose of Mac's labor is to use (and repurpose) popular music through history as a window into U.S. culture from 1776 to the present, from a determinedly untraditional point of view. The performance is described as "a radical faery realist ritual sacrifice" and the goal, as Mac declares up front, is to make the audience feel uncomfortable.
The evening's songs began with the beginnings of the nation: a pre-Revolutionary criticism of the Continental Congress from 1776 and a 1780s demand for the rights of women set to "God Save the King." Mac then deconstructed "Dixie," throwing in comments about the unhygienic conditions faced by Confederate soldiers, and performed "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" as a dirge and "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain" as an incantation.
Other highlights came when Mac selected three white men from the audience for a symbolic "sacrifice of the patriarchy" and, later, turned a homophobic Ted Nugent song into a dreamy slow dance (complete with mirror ball) and asked audience members to select strangers of the same sex to dance with, in the aisles and onstage. "Amazing Grace" as a growling blues, "Turn, Turn, Turn" as a takeoff on Henry Mancini's noir-ish "Peter Gunn" theme, a rousing performance of David Bowie's "Heroes" by the Bowie State University pep band, complete with a drumline and dancers ... the whole event was revelatory and utterly unique.