Last night, as I said in an earlier post, I saw theater artist Taylor Mac (whose preferred gender pronoun is judy) perform judy’s show A 24-Decade History of American Popular Music: Songs of the American Right.
I should begin by saying I was biased in Mac’s favor before I even sat down in the theater, having interviewed judy a few weeks before for our Spoleto preview coverage. I’d never seen judy perform, but after reading about judy’s work and speaking with judy, I’ve come to think judy’s one of the most thoughtful and unique artists — and one of the ones most capable of moving people to reassess their assumptions — that I’ve ever encountered.
I still believe that after last night’s hour-and-a-half long show, which I enjoyed from the moment a bedazzled, golden Mac appeared walking through the audience to climb up to the stage, to the last note of the encore which judy didn’t even make us ask for (that was a lot funnier and less off-putting than it sounds).
This, and the other concerts which form a part of Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music, is a cabaret-style show which judy performs in what I suppose you would call drag, although I hesitate to use that word because it oversimplifies what’s going on. This isn’t a drag show; rather, it’s a performance that use many drag show conventions to push a strong message and entertain you in the meantime.
The entertainment part was this: singing old and not-so-old conservative and liberal songs, including the Civil Rights song “Mississippi Goddamn,” “Okie from Muskogee” — which included a “follow the bouncing boobs sing-a-long, with the boobs provided by local burlesque performer Evelyn DeVere — and religious songs like “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.” Of course, Mac appropriates them as judy’s own, twisting the meaning or style in order to subvert the originals. Judy’s persona throughout is drag queen all the way — funny, flamboyant, confident, pushy, and a little bit wacky, although judy does at various points slip into seriousness.
As for the message, in the broadest sense it’s that we as human beings need more shared rituals in our lives so we can connect with each other and embrace ourselves fully. In this show, Songs of the American Right, the message is a bit more specific: we (even those of us who consider ourselves blazing liberals) are holding on to things from the past, like racism, sexism, and homophobia, that are preventing us from truly living in this present moment. Under the leadership of the glittery and glamorous Mac, we in the theater are meant to sacrifice and let go of those things by acknowledging them, deconstructing them, and reassembling them into something better so we can “dream the culture forward.”
If all that sounds heady and not fun at all, I understand. Mac’s work comes from a deeply philosophical place, although, as judy said in our interview, judy does always want judy’s work to be entertaining. Because of that, this show was admittedly — as Paul Bowers, who wasn’t crazy about the show, pointed out in his excellent review — didactic. Mac opened with a bit of a speech about why we were here, and how judy’s job was “not to teach you anything, but to remind you of the things you’ve forgotten, dismissed, or buried, or that others have buried for you.”
This premise worked for me. In fact, I was intrigued, in spite of and because of the dreaded audience participation I’d heard about. Mac likes to take people out of their comfort zones by forcing them to interact with strangers, and I can testify that yes, it’s uncomfortable and awkward. But that is also the point. After all, what’s so scary about another person? Why is physical contact with a stranger such a terrible thing? Shouldn’t it actually be a wonderful, comforting thing, to be surrounded by other humans, and sharing something of yourself with them?
That’s the kind of fundamental reassessment Mac’s performance can spark. And that can, if you let it, naturally lead you into reassessing other elements of your personal ideology.
So yeah, I bought into the whole thing. I’m almost embarrassed to say how completely I bought into Mac’s world — almost, but not quite. That’s because I really believe that no matter how much you think you agree with judy’s politics on gender, or race, or how much you pride yourself on your open-minded, progressive way of looking at the world, we all have little hypocrisies and cracks in our beliefs that need to be challenged if we’re to continue growing as people. And that just doesn’t happen much in regular life, unless you’re a talk radio host or you have very outspoken family members.
Of course, the reason all this is bearable is because Mac is dishing it out using judy’s drag persona. I’m not sure what it is about drag queens that gets people, most people at least, to loosen up and take a joke, but I’m certainly thinking about it after last night. I guess if someone’s wearing sequins around their eyes and a glittery Statue of Liberty headdress, it’s hard to feel all that self-conscious around them.
And Gage, if you’re reading this, I hope that was the case with you. You were a trooper, what with the boobs, and the hugging, and the hipster jokes. Rock on.
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