Subscribe to Here’s the Deal, our politics newsletter for analysis you won’t find anywhere else.
Thank you. Please check your inbox to confirm.
For years, artist Taylor Mac has challenged mainstream ideas around gender and sexuality with shows that spotlight LGBTQ identity. Now Mac, who received a MacArthur grant last fall, is touring “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music,” a show with 24 hour-long sets that reconstruct U.S. history through the songs of people on the margins. NewsHour Weekend’s Ivette Feliciano has more.
In the fall of 2016, an audience of several hundred people gathered at a theater in Brooklyn, New York, for 24 hours straight.
"Today, tonight, and tomorrow, we are making a 24-decade history of popular music."
You heard right — 24 hours. The show, called "a 24-decade history of popular music," is written and performed by artist Taylor Mac. It's the story of American history, told through the songs of people on the margins of society.
What was really fun about learning the history this way is that I could dive into it and I could kind of search for the queer aspect of the story.
For this project, Mac aimed to create an expansive, alternative history of the United States. The result is a show that breaks that story down into 24 hour-long sets that each describe a decade. To attend the show is to relive history through Mac's vision of America, from the founding of the country to gay liberation and beyond.
"So it's 1776. The big question is, how do we build ourselves while at the same time we're being torn apart?"
Mac began the project by workshopping one decade at a time at Joe's Pub, an intimate concert venue in New York City, in 2011. Those were followed by performances in other cities, including Chicago, Nashville and Minneapolis.
During the show and often with audience participation, Mac re-enacts the stories of everyone from civil rights activists to immigrants to British loyalists in the Revolutionary war. Sometimes, the show retells events from history in unexpected ways — like the Civil War.
"We're gonna have our first battle."
I didn't want to bring in ammunition into our show with guns and things like that. So I thought, what is the queer version of ammunition? And I thought, 'Oh, it's probably a ping pong ball.'
Growing up in Stockton, California, Mac never saw LGBTQ people represented in the story of the United States.
What was your understanding of what it meant to be queer?
When I realized it, I thought, 'Oh, I can't tell anyone, for the rest of my life, I can't tell anyone.' I thought what I was was good, but I knew that other people didn't think that, so I couldn't tell other people that.
Then, as a young teenager visiting San Francisco, Mac witnessed a life-changing event. It was 1987, and 6,000 people had gathered for San Francisco's first AIDS walk.
I had never met an out homosexual before. So the first time I ever saw one it was thousands of them all at the same time. The reason they were all together was because of the epidemic. So their community was being strengthened because it was being torn apart. I think subconsciously all my theatrical work has been about that.
Performing this show for 24 hours is so rigorous that Mac has only done it that one time in Brooklyn. Mac trained for that as if it were a marathon, performing longer and longer sets in preparation.
So what did it feel like to perform that last hour when you're alone on stage?
I felt like, 'Oh, we're going to make it.' There was something peaceful about it. I knew, physically, that I could make the final hour, even though it was very difficult. I knew I was going to be able to.
Next month, Mac will perform excerpts of the show at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Then, it will be staged at the Theatre at Ace Hotel in Los Angeles, as a series of four six-hour performances. Mac says that with each new audience, the show takes on new meaning.
The audience for me is almost always the central character. By the end of the piece I think people almost click into that, they kind of realize it's about all of us in this room and this history that's been on our backs. And what can we do with this history.
Watch the Full Episode
Corinne is the Senior Multimedia Web Editor for NewsHour Weekend. She serves on the advisory board for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts.
Ivette Feliciano shoots, produces and reports on camera for PBS NewsHour Weekend. Before starting with NewsHour in 2013, she worked as a one-person-band correspondent for the News 12 Networks, where she won a New York Press Club Award for her coverage of Super Storm Sandy, which ravaged the East Coast in 2012. Prior to that, Ivette was the Associate Producer of Latin American news for Worldfocus, a nationally televised, daily international news show seen on Public Television. While at Worldfocus, Ivette served as the show’s Field Producer and Reporter for Latin America, covering special reports on the Mexican drug war as well as a 5-part series out of Bolivia, which included an interview with President Evo Morales. In 2010, she co-produced a documentary series on New York’s baseball history that aired on Channel Thirteen. Ivette holds a Master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she specialized in broadcast journalism.
Zachary Green began working in online and broadcast news in 2009. Since then he has produced stories all over the U.S. and overseas in Ireland and Haiti. In his time at NewsHour, he has reported on a wide variety of topics, including climate change, immigration, voting rights, and the arts. He also produced a series on guaranteed income programs in the U.S. and won a 2015 National Headliner Award in business and consumer reporting for his report on digital estate planning. Prior to joining Newshour, Zachary was an Associate Producer for Need to Know on PBS, during which he assisted in producing stories on gun violence and healthcare, among others. He also provided narration for the award-winning online documentary series, “Retro Report”.
Support Provided By:
Additional Support Provided By: