Taylor Mac: Just Brilliant
A 24 Decade History Of Popular Music: 1900’s-1950’s
June 13th-25th, 2015
New York Live Arts
221 W. 19th St., N.Y., N.Y.
By E. Joyce Glasgow, www.artsandculturescene.com
Multifaceted artist, Taylor Mac, wears many hats, figuratively and literally, and each is more glittery and outlandishly creative than the last. He is an accomplished actor, singer, performance artist, playwright, director, Obie Award winner, truth–teller and brilliant, compassionate, observant social commentator, both pragmatic and whimsical.
Mac is what I would consider to be an American Griot. A Griot, in African traditions, is an individual whose life work is to pass down the history of their particular culture through verbal storytelling and song.
“ A 24 Decade History of Popular Music: 1900’s- 1950’s” is Taylor Mac’s current performance piece, which is part of a larger, epic 24 hour marathon, being planned for 2016, that will cover American popular song from 1776- 2016. The current performances are separated into two segments of three hours each, from the 1900’s- 1920’s and from 1930’s-1950’s, and are being presented at New York Live Arts, in conjunction with the Public Theatre’s “Under the Radar” festival.
Mac portrays American history through the popular songs of the eras, and while admitting to taking artistic license with history, his use of song and audience participation illuminates our history uniquely, incorporating contemporary cultural references, bringing our past alive and into a three dimensional present.
In the 1900’s-1920’s segment, Mac explores music popular in the Jewish Tenements of the 1900’s, the coming World War I years of the 1910’s and the flapper/Great Depression years of the 1920’s. There are thirty-four songs in all, including “Shine On Harvest Moon”, “A Bird In A Gilded Cage”, “Take Me Out To The Ballgame”, “Danny Boy”, Tiptoe Through The Tulips” and “Big Rock Candy Mountain”.
Mac persuasively orchestrates the audience, disarmingly, with charm, humor and heart. Throughout the performance, audience members are constantly participating, moving, changing their placement in the theatre, singing, physically gesturing and feeling the sense of community that Mac is trying to create and he considers the audience his “collaborators”.
Émigrés from “Eastern Europe” (the audience seats) slowly crowd the stage floor, until almost the whole audience sits cross-legged, hip-to-hip, packed as if in a Lower East Side tenement, complete with babies crying and mothers yelling. Suddenly, a theatrical reenactment of an experience of our history not known to most people living in 2015 comes a little bit alive, enhanced by the songs of the day, including “Where Is The Street?”
Later on, Mac refers to the time leading up to the war as a time of the birth of irony in America, as one’s future is harshly undeterminable. Mac asks all the men in the audience between their teens and their forties to come down and sit in the trenches of World War I, passing around their two tablespoon ration of hard liquor and having their wounds administered to by nurses, again, women from the audience and we are witness to a picture of what would be the tearing away of a huge population of able-bodied men, to be sent off into unknown territory, many of whom would never return to their wives and families. At one point the audience squares off into two opposing halves, one half chanting the words to “I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier” to the other half chanting the words to “It’s Time For Every Boy To Be A Soldier”. As pro war sentiment increases, as it did at the time, the anti war chant is reduced to two, lone women in the audience, countered loudly by all the rest. Art imitates life. At another moment, all the women in the audience are asked to sing the wistful, somewhat melancholy, “Keep The Home Fires Burning”.
The world was ravaged by the deaths of sixteen and one half million people killed during World War I and the subsequent grief and trauma experienced by the living. In the 1920’s segment, Mac speculates on people’s coping mechanisms from the extraordinary traumas of the war. He creates a fictional scenario between two gay, male partners, who respond in completely different ways to Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. One stifles his trauma, trying to compensate and be happy and party in the desperate reveling of the good time Flapper years while his partner is embraced by the trauma, sinking into a deep depression, which takes him ten years to emerge from. He takes that ten years also to finish James Joyce’s Ulysses, and finally comes up for air and reconciles with his partner. “Happy Days Are Here Again” and “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” are part of this section. “Singin’ In The Rain” takes on a tone of tentative optimism and healing.
Throughout, songs like “K-K-K-Katy”, “Oh How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning” and the usually very upbeat, “When the Red Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along”, take on an unexpectedly poignant tone due to Mac’s smart and thoughtful narrative thread.
A very special moment is when Mac asks the audience for all people over fifty to raise their hands and then makes the painful and true observation that people over fifty become invisible in our society. In the particular performance that I attended, he invited a man in his eighties to come to the stage and asked for a person under twenty to come forward. He then asked the elder man to teach the young man how to dance and asked older audience members to pair up with younger ones and teach them to dance. This action in waking up the generations to each other and raising consciousness is part of the unique heart that Taylor Mac shares with the public and I loved it!
Taylor Mac’s three sparkling, extravagant costumes were created by wildly imaginative designer and installation artist, Machine Dazzle (Matthew Flower). One of Mac’s headdresses is cleverly constructed from a World War I military gas mask. Machine Dazzle has also turned the theatre lobby into a flamboyant, attractive environment filled with multi- colored balloons, sports trophies and naked mannequins, wearing only pasties, exaggerated facial makeup and large, white wigs, along with a Pie In The Face sculpture, repetitive Gerber baby images and three Statue of Liberty mannequins in the theatre’s front window.
Mac has a wonderful band accompanying him, including: Matt Ray (Music Director/Piano/Backing Vocals), Bernice Boom Boom Brooks (Drums), Danton Boller (Bass), Greg Glassman (Trumpet), Amber Gray (Backing Vocals) and Yair Evnine (Cello/Guitar).
Taylor Mac conceived, wrote and co-directed the piece. Niegel Smith is the co-director. The lighting designer is John Torres.
This is an amazing and very distinctive show, which should not be missed. All shows are sold out, but a waiting list will be available for the remaining performances.