I'm on a flight from Seattle to New York, en route to a memorial for Seth Gelblum, a prominent and genuinely menschy entertainment lawyer, who, with kindness, strength and diplomacy, served as chairman of the board of New Dramatists for most of the eighteen years I was artistic director there. Seth died way too young, fought long and hard to hold onto life, left more than one person's share of generosity behind and a list of accomplishments that led to the distinction of being a lawyer honored with a special Tony. One of those many accomplishments was the creation of a stable and thriving home for playwrights, sustained in part by his fascinated love and determination to serve those writers.
I'm traveling east in what has seemed a season of loss in the theatre, prominent founders, actors, artists: Zelda Fichandler, Jim Houghton, Edward Albee, new names almost daily (including, as we ready this for publication, Gordon Davidson), passages that, expected or shocking, coming in advanced age or unmercifully before their time, add to a pervasive gloom brought on by an almost unbearable season on our nation's streets and political stages.
I doubt I'm alone in fighting despair these days, a despair that feels acute. Likewise, I doubt I'm alone in looking to the life-giving force of art as bulwark, however fragile, against the dread. My favorite artists stir in me an aspiration to tenacity, to clear-eyed idealism, to engagement with the unrelenting battle of spirit, imagination, and, yes, love against those pervasive counter-forces: domination, violence, cynicism, and the willful ignorance that, by squandering the gifts of this world and the crazy collection of different-yet-connected beings in it, actually threatens the survival of that world.
Sometimes, the artists I turn to are those wizards who seem able to hold tight to wonder, even in the face of acknowledged horror. Sometimes they are those unflinching truth-tellers, who go deep and risk big on our behalf. And sometimes, I turn to the challenge of our great communitarian artists who remind us of the invisible breath that connects us.
Then there are those rare souls who do all three: wonder-sustaining, truth-telling communitarians, whose ambition and hard-won joy give me mad hope in moments just like this one. Taylor Mac is one such artist. And as my plane passes through turbulent air over the Rockies, I'm projecting myself exactly two weeks into the future when I'll take this same flight from Seattle to New York to sit at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn for a non-stop twenty-four hour performance of Taylor's A 24-Decade History of Popular Music.
I was first introduced to Taylor Mac about twelve years ago when I saw his solo work, an intimate piece about Vietnam, manhood, and sex. That is, about his father. I had no idea of what else was in store—work of delight and scale I had rarely seen, the emergence of a unique writer’s voice, a weird and lyrical musical talent, and a boundary-pushing exploration of drag-gender-politics and all the hyphens in-between. Taylor has redefined theatrical exuberance for me and attuned my ear, even in these dark, dog-consume-dog days, to a defiant, hopeful strain of America singing.
Taylor is a marvel, a one-man-woman festival of talent, artistic ambition, political intentionality, and sheer love of theatre. Part Court Jester, part ingénue, all Empress, Taylor writes, acts, sings, plays the ukelele, and works the audience like the expert bar-room drag artist he is, luring us into a universe of glorious provocations. (Even Taylor's pronoun of choice—judy—provokes us to a festive, diva-naming awkwardness, designed to make everyone who utters it part of the show.) There are brilliant playwrights who till the same ground and, by keeping to a relatively narrow furrow, go deeper and deeper. Taylor goes deep and broad at the same time. This concert of American popular songs will cover twenty-four decades of music, one hour of ten(ish) songs from each decade since independence. What will we understand of how America sings itself? What will we know anew about theatrical event? What reckless abundance will we share? What immersion?
Duration is one part of Taylor's marvelous project, but heterogeneity is another—maybe the only absolutely positive hetero thing in Mac World. Disparate parts, disparate styles. I’m thinking of the five acts of The Lily’s Revenge, which blend vaudeville, Japanese Noh, opera, ballet, Elizabethan pageant, film, Victoriana, burlesque, circus, and elementary school play, a cornucopia of styles and finery, amateur opulence, and virtuosic beauty. But I’m also thinking of the way judy populates judy's plays. (See what I mean about the pronoun?) Listen to the cast description from The Walk Across America for Mother Earth:
The cast size is flexible, but there need to be a minimum of ten players. All genders, ages, ethnicity, and body types should be represented by the cast, but the play should not be cast appropriately: women can play men, old can play young, fat can play skinny, and any ethnicity can play any role. All the characters in the play are either cross-eyed, tunnel visioned, or have heavy eyelids.
Everyone is wanted at the party—all ages, sexes, shapes, and sizes—and everyone can play anything. For some (including many voters, apparently) this is a vision of hell, but for Taylor, I suspect, it’s life as it is, life as it should be, theatre as it must be—a heavenly garden of earthly delight. I know that, as a straight white man, there's a whole plane of queer performance beyond me, but this only adds to the exuberance, the always more, ever-elusive plenty of the festivities. We watch Taylor the playwright/producer/performer not just because of judy's audacious purity and mad, gorgeous theatricality, but because Taylor's persona and performances contain these crazy beautiful multitudes and, if they do, so might we.
But we also remain attentive to the politics of Taylor's spectacles. It takes great effort for a lily flower to pull itself out of a pot, to stop the exploitative torture of flowers in Ecuador, to transform into a man, and, in four short hours time, return to marry the bride and so close up the social circle that allows The Lily's Revenge's comic ending. And it takes a similar effort to make a world of difference, transformation, and change.
Taylor’s comedic tragedy Hir has brought Mac-the-playwright deserved acclaim in San Francisco, New York, Minneapolis, and beyond. In Hir we're sucked into the mayhem that follows a family’s transformation from a brutal patriarchy under the now-stroke-addled Arnold to a maybe-equally abusive tyranny under a new regime, led in direct contradiction to everything that came before by Arnold’s long-victimized wife, Paige. Where there was order there is a hoarder’s chaos. Where there was air there is air-conditioning. Where Arnold ruled his family with an iron fist, Paige rules by dressing her disabled husband as a clown and terrorizing him with a spray bottle to the face.
Change is rampant. Paige’s younger daughter transitions from one gender to a non-binary other. Her older son returns from Iraq with a nasty methamphetamine habit. In the new world dis-order, nothing is guarded more ferociously than pronouns:
IN these new genders, exists new pronouns. Max is no longer a she or a he. So you call Max, ze. You must use ze instead of the pronouns he or she and you must you’re the pronoun hir, H.I.R., in place of the pronouns her or him. Max gets very upset if you refer to hir as a she, he, her, or him. Ze wants you to refer to hir as a hir or ze. Ze also gets upset when you emphasize the ze as if commenting on the pronoun when speaking to hir. For example if you were to say, “What is ZE doing today?,” ze will not like that. Ze, understandably, is not to be treated as a side-show oddity. Ze wants you to say ze or hir as if this had been part of your regular speaking vocabulary your entire life. Any breach in decorum will cause hir to write in hir blog about how awful hir troglodyte fascist hetero-normative mother is. It’s fantastic.
“We’re on a perpetual trip to bolster the new,” Paige says. But change and difference and newness isn’t easy—whether it’s the biodiversity of The Lily’s Revenge or the gender-and-power switching of the family battlefield. Taylor Mac marches into this never-easy struggle fit, ready, and spectacularly appointed (an ever-changing wardrobe—simultaneously sacred, profane, patriotic, rebellious, found, and fantastical—by Machine Dazzle). Taylor's been prepping for the twenty-four hour show for six years, in one- then three- then six-hour increments, finding and learning the 240+ songs, pushing the memory, readying the body, training the voice. It promises to be, along with Tony Kushner's Angels in America, Suzan-Lori Parks' 365 Plays, 365 Days, August Wilson's Century Cycle, and a handful of other sustained theatrical efforts, one of the monumental achievements of our contemporary theatre.
But unlike these more literary works, Taylor's will be written in the sand, performed whole only once, for 400 of us blessed souls, durational and ephemeral at the same time, as live performance always is, as our striving is. We are at war, if you haven't noticed, and judy is a General in spangled platform shoes, outfitted in the brilliant detritus of 240 years. Judy bands us—his recruits, her supporting cast—together and leads us across the body-strewn parade grounds, through horror, beyond dread, towards delight, on a perpetual trip to bolster the new.