This is not your grandmother’s drag show. A 24-Decade History of Popular Music by renowned playwright and drag performer Taylor Mac is a monumental production covering American popular music from 1776 to 2016; it is being performed in eight uninterrupted three-hour acts — with each hour covering a different decade — followed by a 24-hour marathon of all the installments on October 8 and 9. The show begins with a 24-piece band and loses one ensemble member every hour. Mac, a consummate performer who prefers the lowercase “judy” as a gender pronoun (presumably as in Garland or Butler), delivers an original history of American music with ruthless energy through song, dance, puppets, poetry, brief history lectures, and audience participation.
We saw the third act, “1836–1866: Puppets, Whitman, and Civil War,” which included abolitionist songs, a smack-down between Stephen Foster and Walt Whitman for the title of “Father of American Song,” and a Civil War battle enacted by halves of the audience hurling ping-pong balls at each other.
Mac delights in showing the preposterous elements of our historical memory. For example, judy’s performance of “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd” is accompanied by a cartoonish dancing pirate named Peg Leg Joe. Mac explains the legend of the one-legged sailor who sings coded language to slaves in order to direct them to freedom via the Underground Railroad, while noting the absurdity of a 19th-century mariner spending his time wandering around plantations. Mac has done judy’s homework; it does not escape judy’s notice that the song was almost certainly written decades after the Civil War, and that the Peg Leg Joe legend is patently a white savior narrative made up long after the fact to help white people feel better about the atrocities perpetrated in the American South. This song and others judy historicizes with clarity and humor, simultaneously showing judy’s “liberal, innocent left” audience a series of uncomfortable truths and celebrating the mess of remembered history in all its well-meaning glory.
The queer valences of history become, for Mac, an alternate narrative that provides a refuge from the horrors of war, slavery, and racism. At one point, judy recites one of Whitman’s odes to Union soldiers, noting that Whitman volunteered to work as a nurse in military hospitals, where he wrote letters and poems for the sick and injured. In Mac’s drag presentation, the homoeroticism of Whitman’s poem is impossible to miss. But despite the erotic charge, Mac seems more interested in promoting Whitman as a humanistic alternative (who happened to be gay) to the carnage of the war and to the fatuous minstrelsy of Stephen Foster.
At the same time, Mac is not afraid to be silly in judy’s “queering” of history. During the last hour of Act III, judy gleefully insinuates that when Civil War soldiers had to share cramped tents together, some unspoken things must have happened. It’s irreverent, but not gratuitous; when judy goes on to sing “We’ll all feel gay when Johnny comes marching home” (the original words to the song), it is with heartfelt mourning over all the lives — queer and not — that were needlessly lost in America’s bloodiest war.
The scale of the work is astonishing; it is hard to believe that the three-hour tour de force we saw amounts to only one eighth of the whole show. The research must have been a herculean task, not to mention the effort of arranging the 246 songs used throughout the show. These arrangements, by music director Matt Ray, use the full expressive range of the gradually dwindling ensemble. Machine Dazzle’s costumes alone are worth the price of admission. When Mac sings Civil War battle songs in a hoop skirt made to look like yards of sausage tied together and punctuated by the occasional hot dog bun — or when judy performs Stephen Foster’s minstrel tunes in a skirt made of empty potato chip bags, aluminum foil, and gay porn — the extreme counterpoint serves to highlight the subjective nature of the version of history judy presents, as well as to reinforce the authority of judy’s unique perspective.
If you have a chance to see any of the remaining installments, or if you have the strength for the 24-hour marathon, by all means, go. Much of the audience sits on the floor, and most likely you will be expected to participate in some way; this show is hardly for the casual theatergoer. Aladdin it is not. But we promise you, it’s worth it. If you miss it, you will have to wait a very long time before anything like this will be seen again.