“I’m tellin’ the truth now / We’re all born naked and the rest is drag,” belts out RuPaul in his song “Born Naked.” RuPaul is not a philosopher, but here he may as well be endorsing John Locke’s theory of the tabula rasa, the blank slate of human identity at birth. Locke’s thoughts inspired the United States and the Declaration of Independence, but can a vivacious drag queen and an Enlightenment philosopher really be getting at the same the idea? Can the fundamentals of American society really be explained just as well by an of-the-moment, norm-defying performer extraordinaire?
Yes, says playwright, singer-songwriter and drag artist Taylor Mac. He will be coming to the Powerhouse Theater for its summer season, to perform the debut 12-hour piece of his “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music.” The ultimate goal is a production that will run a full 24 hours, charting the 24 decades of American history from 1776 to the present through 246 popular songs from each era. This halfway benchmark performance at the Powerhouse will take place one time only on July 30, from noon to midnight.
Performing history seems to be in vogue right now (think of the current “Hamilton” craze), but Mac has been crafting this magnum opus for a number of years, workshopping abridged versions focusing on two or three decades at a time at venues around the country. In the spring, he performed a three-hour excerpt of the 20th century section at UCLA’s Royce Hall, but this summer’s Powerhouse event will be his longest performance to date.
“Powerhouse is a great place to come and try something new,” wrote Co-Producing Director of the Powerhouse Theater Michael Sheehan in an emailed statement. “So for Taylor Mac, the 12-hour performance of this material, which he’s been working on for several years, is a great next step in achieving his ultimate goal of presenting all 24 hours in one continuous performance.”
Mac has many goals with the project, but challenging and queering history—broadening the accepted ideas of the American experience to include marginalized groups—is front and center. Formally, the performance features highlights from the full span of American music. However, Mac often subverts the songs, reinterpreting them to fit under-explored narratives and interspersing them with personal anecdotes of his own experience as a gay man and artist.
“The whole show is about what are the things that we’re holding onto that aren’t serving us now,” Mac explained in a recent interview (The Los Angeles Times, “For Taylor Mac, the stage show is just part of the fight for the LGBT community,” 03.11.16).
“He is brutally but impishly honest, and I think people respond to that,” affirmed Director of Education and Special Initiatives at the Center for the Art of Performance Meryl Friedman, part of the group at UCLA that brought Mac to Royce Hall and co-commissioned the entire project. “He has insights that you don’t expect from a guy in an outrageous dress and thick make-up,” she continued.
“He is not unlike Eddie Izzard in his social commentary. Both of these guys force you to re-evaluate who they are on the inside because of what they ‘put on’ on the outside, both literally and figuratively.”
Combining drag, performance art, music history and durational performance, he brazenly defies genre. As the other Co-Producing Director of the Powerhouse Ed Cheetham stated, “Taylor Mac is creating work, both as a playwright and performer, unlike any of his contemporaries or predecessors.”
Audience participation is crucial to a Mac event, as immersion is unavoidable at such a marathon performance. As Friedman described the UCLA event in March, “[P]eople felt both exhilarated and exhausted by the end; you definitely go with him on the journey. I think it’s hard to be a passive audience member at a Taylor Mac performance.”
In fact, Mac often makes passivity impossible, employing the audience to help tell the story. At various points in the concert, he squishes people together on stage to represent immigrants in crowded tenements, marches with others wearing sequined Nazi armbands and separates white audience members to simulate white flight. The narratives are set to campy musical renditions performed in over-the-top costumes, such as a 1950’s A-line dress made of miniature white picket fences topped with a 3D-glasses headdress, nods to the rise of suburbia and the drive-in movie.
One may think that the whimsy of drag would clash with these serious historical truths, many of which still have ramifications to this day. However, Mac’s tongue-in-cheek delivery bridges this gap, enabling a bedecked and bedazzled performer to effectively guide an audience through the history of the plights of people treated as less than human. As The New York Times put it, “He may look like a diva from another planet, but his spike heels are firmly planted on earth” (“An Epic, Sequined Hit Parade,” 01.14.15).
It’s quite fitting that such an intellectual and cultural powerhouse will be visiting a theater with that same name, and Mac will certainly be bringing a unique voice to this summer’s lineup. But standing out and standing up for our beliefs are what kicked off the great American experiment after all. And who knows? Maybe the city on a hill is not too far out of reach, if we just listen to the man in sequins and feathers, belting out the popular music of yesterday in search of a better tomorrow.