For a dizzying, life-affirming 24 hours inside the Forum Theatre, the world was a very different place. It was a world in which difference and self-expression are celebrated. A world in which the struggles of those who have been marginalised and oppressed are acknowledged, and their identities validated. A world that lifts up queers, the gender-diverse, people of colour and the differently-abled. A world that isn’t afraid to be camp, silly, dirty and ridiculous. A world lead by a queer punk in six-inch glittery heels and a giant vulva dress.
Taylor Mac is a prodigious New York performance artist, drag queen and playwright (in fact, Mac was just awarded a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant). For 24 hours – performed over four six-hour chapters during the Melbourne Festival – Mac was also the leader of a queer retelling of American history through the lens of popular music. But to call the experience a pop show would feel woefully inadequate; Mac’s masterwork is an obliteration of dominant social and historical narratives, a radical exercise in community-building, and a call-to-arms.
Or, in the artist’s own words, a “radical faerie realness ritual sacrifice”. The ritual: the performance. The sacrifice: the audience.
We begin in 1776 at the birth of America. Each following hour would represent a decade, with songs accompanied by 24 musicians, a band of ‘Dandy Minions’ (a troupe of some of Melbourne’s best queer artists) and a cavalcade of guest musicians, acrobats, choirs, burlesque dancers and costume changes. After each hour, one musician would leave the stage, leaving judy to complete the ritual in the final hour (Mac’s preferred gender pronoun is ‘judy’: “you can’t roll your eyes and say ‘judy’ without being camp,” quipped Mac in a characteristically wry tone).
Immediately, it becomes clear that the show’s ritualistic aspect is no joke. Over the last eight years, Mac has extensively researched American history, exhuming songs that represent the best and the worst of the times in which they were written. Early on, there are minstrel songs that judy performs with a look of distaste (“I don’t like this song,” Mac says, full of fire as judy cuts Kentucky’s very questionable state song short). But then there are rousing anti-slavery songs from the abolition movement, songs about women’s suffrage, and (in the highlight of the second chapter) a rousing WWE smackdown-style wrestling match between queer poet Walt Whitman and conservative musician Stephen Foster for the title of Father of the American Song. Of course, Whitman is triumphant (“what is it about this that says subjective?” says Mac, resplendent in one of costume designer Machine Dazzle’s sculptural works of art).
Crucially, the audience – or more accurately, participants – are a key part of the ritual. In order to acknowledge and heal horrors from the past, we’re asked to perform ‘Wiccan spells’ and ‘realness rituals’. In acting out these moments, we empathise, we laugh, we cry, we get to know the people around us. During the 1950s, Mac asks all the white people in the centre block of seats to slow-motion run to the sides of the theatre to represent the “white flight” to the suburbs, and give up their seats to people of colour. Later, Mac asks all the straight men in their twenties to join judy on the stage (tellingly, there are only five of them); and, with good humour, asks them to adopt camp and increasingly lascivious movements on stage to Dean Martin’s ‘Sway’.
“You have to honour the past, and then deconstruct the shit out the present,” says Mac. In one of the most moving moments of the final chapter, we’re asked to find an audience member of the same gender and slow-dance with them as if we’re at a high school dance, to the tune of the homophobic ‘Snakeskin Cowboys’ by Trump favourite Ted Nugent. As I hold hands with a woman in the dappled light of a disco ball, I think about how different my high school dance could have been if I, as a queer woman, existed in the world we are creating in this very moment. Later, I joined all the other gay women in the audience on the stage, where Mac hosted a lesbian tailgate party to celebrate radical lesbians of the ‘90s; gay women being arguably relegated to the shadows in queer history. I feel validated in a way that I never knew I needed to be.
This is the true genius of the work: in making the show a communal experience, every single person in the room matters. Everyone is forced to think about their own privilege and their place in the world. “I can’t wait for you to get married so we can focus on the refugee issues,” says Mac, and the room erupts into cheering.
In each six-hour chapter, time warps and takes on a different guise, until it feels that we’re living in the past, present and future. The masterful arrangement of each song by musical director Matt Ray means that every song feels like it could have come from any decade. Songs like Nina Simone’s civil rights anthem ‘Mississippi Goddamn’ feel as relevant as ever: “You don’t have to live next to me, just give me my equality”, sings Mac, and the looming results of the marriage equality plebiscite come to mind. Later, Mac performs ‘Don’t Fence Me In’ accompanied by two Indigenous musicians. We’re asked to donate money to Indigenous education and asylum seekers.
I could have lived in this world forever. Fellow audience members wept openly in their seats as we realised that we were approaching the end of the ritual. With all 24 musicians having left the stage, it was just Taylor, dressed in a vulva costume, singing judy’s own songs. It felt as if everything had distilled into this moment, as judy began to sing one lyric on repeat. “You can lie down, or get up and play.” The message was clear: Taylor Mac helped us envisage a better future. Now it’s time to start building it.