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Taylor Mac turns U.S. history inside out in epic, 24-hour show

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.

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  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    In the fall of 2016, an audience of several hundred people gathered at a theater in Brooklyn, New York, for 24 hours straight.

  • TAYLOR MAC:

    “Today, tonight, and tomorrow, we are making a 24-decade history of popular music.”

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    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.

  • TAYLOR MAC:

    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.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    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.

  • TAYLOR MAC:

    “So it’s 1776. The big question is, how do we build ourselves while at the same time we’re being torn apart?”

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    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.

  • TAYLOR MAC:

    “We’re gonna have our first battle.”

  • TAYLOR MAC:

    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.’

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Growing up in Stockton, California, Mac never saw LGBTQ people represented in the story of the United States.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    What was your understanding of what it meant to be queer?

  • TAYLOR MAC:

    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.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    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.

  • TAYLOR MAC:

    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.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    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.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    So what did it feel like to perform that last hour when you’re alone on stage?

  • TAYLOR MAC:

    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.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    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.

  • TAYLOR MAC:

    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.

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