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Why America Needs Taylor Mac

Only a drag queen who made a 24-hour-long musical masterpiece about American history could put the calamity of Donald Trump into perspective.


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Playwright and performance artist Taylor Mac in one of several over-the-top costumes he’ll don in his concert–slash–endurance theater event.

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Read more from the Fall Arts Preview in our September 2017 issue here.

It’s a sunny Saturday
afternoon in June, and a street trumpeter in a corner of UN Plaza is playing a tune that sounds a little like Miles Davis slurred through Chet Baker. The guy hits all the wrong notes in just the right way, but there’s something in his misshapen arrangement that Taylor Mac digs. Mac—the New York–based playwright, performing artist, singer-songwriter, director, producer, Pulitzer Prize finalist, and cowinner of the 2017 Kennedy Prize for Drama—strides in rhythm across the plaza in high heels and a dress made of cascading ladies’ leather gloves.

He’s here to shoot a digital trailer for A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, the lavishly lauded musical performance–slash–endurance play that will roll out this September in four six-hour chunks at San Francisco’s Curran theater and later in abbreviated form at Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall. In the video, Mac sings an orgiastic rendition of “Amazing Grace” while trailed by an outré assortment of palace courtiers cast as extras. Among them are Sister Rosemary Chicken of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence; Mac’s personal costumier, the six-foot, four-inch drag artist Machine Dazzle; an eccentric becapped biddy with two parakeets perched atop her shoulders; and my dog-sitter, Zach, whom I recognize beneath his glittering false eyelashes and an expanse of iridescent blue wings.

Making his way across the plaza, Mac passes a couple of burly men putting out card tables topped with biblical tracts. Hand-printed placards have been placed around their designated area warning Mac of the dangers of not accepting Jesus into his life. He smiles at the men—not begrudgingly, but with benevolence—while the trumpeter across the way blasts into his own rendition of “Amazing Grace.” The Bible thumpers don’t smile back as Mac lopes by, their eyes affixed instead to the Isis-like headdress resting crown-like atop his head. ISIS? No, Isis: the daughter of Geb, father of the earth, and Nut, mother of the sky. The big-haired gal who married her brother Osiris, who’s the goddess of nature and magic, the friend of slaves and sinners and artists alike, and who also finds time to hear the prayers of the aristocrats. Which, come to think of it, sounds like an apt description for Taylor Mac in all his intersectional, ritualistic, pagan fabulousness.

When Mac returns to San Francisco this month to put on his titanic, 24-hour-long, one-man “durational concert”—which played uninterrupted last October at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, a performance that New York Times critic Wesley Morris called “one of the great experiences of my life”—he’ll be effectively closing the door on a project that has lived with him for some 30 years and consumed him for the past six. But what is A 24-Decade History of Popular Music? And what, for that matter, is a “durational concert”? To recite directly from Mac’s website, the show consists of “over 246 songs—some original and many pre-existing popular songs (popular in the U.S. from 1776 to the present day)—as well as over 13 hours of original text. The work is a deconstruction, reimagining, reframing, and reenactment of 240 years of U.S. history.”

In other words, it is an extravaganza, one that zooms from Revolutionary War–era pub songs to temperance ditties to hillbilly ballads to African American spirituals to Gilbert and Sullivan to Debussy to down and dirty rock ’n’ roll. Whether San Francisco audiences will take to such a strange work by such a singular genius is, perhaps, beside the point. (Although from what I witnessed when it ran in a spate of three-hour productions during the Curran’s Under Construction series last year, they will.) For Mac, performing “the whole show—all 24 hours of it” in this city was necessary to truly finish it. “San Francisco was the place that gave me the seed for the entire project,” he says. “To come back and do it here was essential.”

Taylor Mac Bowyer
was born in Laguna Beach in 1973 and grew up mainly in Stockton. His mother was an art teacher, and his father, who died in a motorcycle accident when Mac was four, was in finance—probably. “He worked for the U.S. Forest Service and helped invest its money,” Mac tells me over Skype a few weeks after the video shoot. “Something like that. I could be wrong.”

No longer costumed, Mac is sitting in the living room of his New York apartment, his shaved pate giving him a Yul Brynner–ish handsomeness. “I have only a few memories of my father,” he says. “I remember riding on his motorcycle. Playing hide-and-seek. Jumping on a trampoline.” Mac was close to his mother, but he didn’t necessarily cotton to her ideas about art. “I took art classes from my mother, but I never really liked it. It was drudgery for me.”

There was also a stepfather who was emotionally abusive—he was “sort of a hippie but more to be trendy,” Mac says. “A hippie who wanted to perpetuate the system. A raging lefty homophobe and misogynist.” Mac’s mother divorced him when her son was 19. It was, other than that, a pretty standard California upbringing. “My first job was as a paperboy when I was 11 to 13,” he says, laughing. “One of the worst jobs I’ve ever had. You had to get up every day no matter the weather or how tired you were. You got paid a hundred dollars a month and had to collect the money.” This was in the mid-’80s, peak Reagan era, so I ask if his physical proximity to newspapers made him more aware of the news of the day: Gorbachev’s rise and Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the famine in Ethiopia and the Olympics in Los Angeles. Again, he laughs. “I didn’t read the headlines, honey, I just delivered the papers.”

It was in 1987 that his awareness of a wider world didn’t so much shift as explode before his eyes. At the age of 13 he attended the first AIDS Walk in San Francisco. “I had never met an out homosexual before—or, at least, one that was out to me,” he says. “The first time I ever saw an out homosexual was thousands of them at the same time. It was a profound experience to see that queer history, queer agency, queer pride, queer power all for the first time.”

“And queer grief?” I ask.

“Yes—and queer grief. People were pushing loved ones in wheelchairs. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence were there. I saw my first drag queens that day. People were singing and chanting. People were screaming and furious. ACT UP was there.” This was before the AIDS Walk became a de facto civic duty, something that politicians and corporations felt obligated to attend, he says. “That first one felt like a seditious act just to be there. To discover that community as a result of the community deteriorating and falling apart was to discover at the same time a community being built and strengthened. That paradox, the dichotomy of that, was profoundly interesting to me, and I think I just put that in the back of my brain.” He pauses, overcome with a wave of emotion. Every queer of a certain age has learned to blink back tears when recalling that time. He revises his previous statement: “No. No, it didn’t go to the back of my brain. It was one of the most profound moments of my life and really affected me.”

“Fast-forward 30 years later,” he goes on, “and I wanted to make a show that was a metaphor and a representation of that. I wanted to put the audience in a situation in which they are under some kind of complicated circumstance and I’m under some sort of complicated circumstance and as a result of falling apart together we’re building bonds. So I decided to make a durational concert. I decided to create A 24-Decade History of Popular Music.”

But first, long before that epiphany struck, he had to return to Stockton to his mother and older sister and what was increasingly becoming a painful adolescence. “One of the reasons I created this show,” he says, “is because during my whole public school experience there was never any mention of anything gay except for the time my English lit teacher said that Shakespeare was ‘a fag.’ It was intense growing up in Stockton during that time of the AIDS epidemic, when you were being told that being gay was evil and could kill you and gays deserved to die. It was a message I got on a regular basis.”

In 1994, after attending San Francisco State for a time and even appearing in Beach Blanket Babylon for an eight-month stretch during which he dressed up like a poodle and sang “Runaround Sue,” Mac moved to New York to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. A playwright and actor, he began to find his high-heel footing as a performance artist in Manhattan clubs and bars. It was there that he first met the costume designer Machine Dazzle, who was a member of the stripper troupe the Dazzle Dancers and who created all of the outrageous upcycled ensembles that Mac wears in the current show. “It’s more about sculpture to me,” says the designer, a kind of Willem de Kooning of wanton detritus, of his work for Mac. “I consider myself an artist who covers the body in a certain way. But Taylor is beyond a canvas for me. I’m putting art on a piece of art.”

There have been 15 other artistic endeavors leading up to this latest one by Mac. Among them were his 2010 performance piece Comparison Is Violence or The Ziggy Stardust Meets Tiny Tim Songbook; the Obie-winning play The Lily’s Revenge, which premiered in 2009 at HERE in New York; and Hir, which premiered in 2014 at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre. Critics have long championed him. This year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, the New Yorker’s Hilton Als, recently wrote, “Mac is a theatre artist through and through—no aspect of the stage is alien to him—but what I remember most when I think of him is his voice: his sweet singing, almost contralto at times, is as original as anything else he does, and isn’t the artist’s voice what we look for when we go to the theatre?” Mac’s latest work, Als continued, “is offered in the spirit Whitman had in mind when he said that he heard America singing.”

After that one-time-only 24-hour performance at St. Ann’s last October, a culmination of six years of work with musical director Matt Ray and codirector Niegel Smith, Mac fell into a funk, he says. It was not only a bit of creative postpartum; he was also coping with personal grief. “Trump being elected was bad enough, but my mom died two days after his election,” he says. The sadness at his mother’s death still seeps from him. There is a tinge of anger, too. “My mom had conservative politics. She would pass around all those Clinton-bashing movies to people telling them how horrible Hillary was. She voted Republican her entire life until Obama. But she hated the Clintons with a fury that was weird.” Leaving Mac’s mother’s politics aside, however, he still sought her support. “It was hard to work with her about the homosexual stuff," but she came around eventually. She traveled across the country every year to see her crazy drag queen child do shows. She would say to me, ‘Well, you’re not going to do drag forever,’ as a way of saying to me: Please don’t continue to do this. Still, she would come and celebrate it. Ultimately, she really loved the work.”

Reaching his mother with his audacious, manically charged art helped Mac forge connections to others as well. Not everyone in his audience, he realizes, shares his politics. In spite of performing in the safest corners of Blue America, Mac believes he is not, in fact, preaching to the converted. “I feel as if I am a bridge between the normative and the insane, but also a bridge between queer people and straight people and between gay men and women and definitely between the mainstream and the counterculture. Until I look into the audience and see an entire room full of drag queens, I am not preaching to the converted. And even then, when I hang out with drag queens, they tend to look at me and go, ‘Ahhh…no, honey….’”

When Mac performed
the 24-hour version of his show at St. Ann’s, Donald Trump still had not been elected president. We were all still living under the shared illusion that Hillary Clinton would soon be in the White House. And so, I wonder, has he changed portions of the show now that Trump is our president? He pauses to consider his response. “Part of my job is to incorporate calamity. That’s how I see it,” he says. “And another part of my job is to do something with that calamity and to make art out of it. So since Trump is the biggest thing in our lives right now that is causing calamity, he’ll be incorporated. But the calamity doesn’t get to be the lead. It’s always the subplot. It’s never the main story. ”

Rather, the lead in the narrative Mac has been making his whole life has been, in some abiding way, Judy Garland. His love for the actress points us back to the Curran, where she performed a four-week engagement in 1952. “I’m scared of San Francisco,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle then. “The audiences there are tough; I’ve got to be great up there.” Mac reveres Garland to such an extent that he prefers the pronoun judy rather than he and him. (It’s a usage that, for the sake of clarity, I’ve elected not to employ—until now.) “It’s not something I like to be called,” judy chastens me. “It’s my pronoun. It’s not my nickname. I’m not adamant about it. I just don’t give a shit. It makes me happy when people use it. If you have a problem with using it, then that is the journey that you’re going on. I chose it because to me it’s art. And, yes, it is absolutely based on Judy Garland.”

So what’s it like for Mac to perform on the same stage where Garland herself performed? “It’s the best thing ever,” judy says giddily. “I’m sharing a dressing room with Judy Garland’s ghost, and I get to go on that stage where Judy Garland performed.”

I sometimes find it funny that people think of Mac as an avant-garde performance artist when in reality judy’s just an old-fashioned queen who loves Judy Garland. Mac welcomes this paradox. “She was the greatest performance artist of all time,” judy says. “I do think of myself as an entertainer that likes to express the full range of our humanity on a stage so that it’s not just about fun, fun, fun, fun, fun. I do like an intellectual pursuit as well.”

“You’re like Liberace, if he had read some André Gide,” I offer.

“I suppose so. If I had been of Judy’s or Liberace’s generation, I wouldn’t have ended up being a Hollywood performer, though. I think I would have ended up being the kind of performer I am now. Euripides was a weirdo and he did weird things. He didn’t need doors opened for him.”

And neither, to some extent, did Mac. Loretta Greco, the artistic director of Magic Theatre—which joined the Curran, Stanford, and Pomegranate Arts in presenting this show—has long been one of Mac’s biggest supporters and admirers. “From the first time I sat down to break bread with Taylor, I knew he was unlike anyone,” Greco says, remembering their introduction over breakfast at the West Way Diner in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen. “I sensed he was beautifully, playfully, unusually authentic.”

A few hours
after the trumpet concert on UN Plaza, Mac and the troupe are shooting the promo video’s last scenes on Castro Street. The sun is setting behind Twin Peaks and the summer wind is really kicking up. Mac is wrapped in a blanket while waiting for the video’s director to set up the next and final shot, which will have Mac’s “weirdos” winding their way along chilly Castro Street, over and over, before the last bit of golden light disappears and the darkness descends. The long pink tendrils puttied onto Mac’s lower lashes are beginning to droop and uncurl.

Mac is sitting next to Twin Peaks Tavern, the city’s oldest gay bar. From inside, faces who have seen weirdos parading for decades are staring out at Mac’s ensemble, fascinated by their glittery splendor. Does judy feel maternal toward these members of the San Francisco fold? “I don’t want to be a mother figure,” Mac says. “I’m an Elizabethan fool. The Fool isn’t anybody’s mom. The Fool is going to fuck you up.”

In the window of Twin Peaks is a portrait of Harvey Milk made of jelly beans—Ronald Reagan’s favorite. In this golden moment, Milk’s jelly bean eyes take in Mac’s drooping tendrils. The director calls for the last shot. Mac rises and throws off the blanket. Together, the troupe sashays, in unison, humming “Amazing Grace,” as the light dims and the camera rolls one final time. Jelly bean Harvey stares, not begrudgingly but with benevolence, at the high-heeled Mac, judy’s exhausted head held amazingly, gracefully high. The weirdos, reveling in their weirdness, follow.

Originally published in the September issue of
San Francisco

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