Theater artist Taylor Mac, a MacArthur Fellowship winner this year, will perform the epic A 24-Decade History of Popular Music as part of the 2018 Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts (PIFA), the Kimmel Center announced Thursday.
The show really is 24 hours long. All but indescribable, it devotes a full hour to each decade of popular music in the United States, 246 songs, from the 1770s to the present day. It’s a major get for the Kimmel and PIFA, the biannual citywide arts festival that runs May 31-June 10 next year. Among its many glittering baubles, History earned a Special Citation Obie award this year for its world premiere at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn and was a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama. It won the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History, plus two 2017 New York Dance and Performance (“Bessie”) Awards for outstanding production and visual design.
At PIFA, Mac will perform Part I: 1776-1896 from noon to midnight June 2, and Part II: 1896-the present, from noon to midnight June 9. Ticket sales for Kimmel members begin Nov. 9; public sales begin Nov. 20. Tickets are available for each part by itself or for the entire show.
So get ready, Philly: A drag queen is about to be your guide in an epochal romp through the history of our popular songs.
Wherever it goes, it’s big. And different. Mac is fond of inserting local music, personalities, and stories into the performance. (The Philadelphia Sound, anyone?) With a stress on audience participation (“the audience is the protagonist and star of the show,” in Mac’s words), History comes complete with a big ensemble, an orchestra, musical arrangements by Matt Ray, and costumes by Mac’s longtime collaborator Machine Dazzle. As a self-styled “professional fool, one of the oldest and most important jobs,” Mac uses drag to probe and question our history and the way we think of it.
“It’s the first time we’ve ever done it as two 12-hour shows,” Mac, 44, said by phone from New York. “There’s something profound and exciting about letting people experience the first half, think about it for a week, then come back and experience the second half.”
History traces how popular music has been made by outsiders and marginalized groups or has had special meaning for them and the country. “We’re telling the story,” Mac said, “of different communities in America being torn apart and rebuilding themselves.”
“This is going to be the experience of a lifetime for Philadelphia,” said Jay Wahl, producing artistic director of programming for the Kimmel Center. He said that, after being wowed by seeing a History workshop in New York, “I went to Taylor and his team, and I said, ‘OK, when are we doing this work together in Philadelphia, where this nation was founded?’ It fits right into the idea of PIFA, which is so much about how art transforms us and brings us together.”
“Popular songs are rallying tools; that’s my understanding of what they do,” Mac said. “Their goal, their job, is to rally people around something, whether it’s love, or a wedding, or a political crisis, or even just a dance or break from routine.” From “Yankee Doodle” to Patti Smith, popular songs use their imperfections, Mac says, “their very simplicity, their humanity, down to their imperfect rhymes,” to unify us: “They engage us in the act of creation, remind us we’re all creating ourselves, and this place, together.”
Must have: a big stage. “I’m queer, so my ideas are big,” Mac said. “And just appearing in these big spaces, that’s already subversive in itself, because suddenly we, who maybe haven’t been always center stage, have a big voice, and the power structure is with us in this big room, hearing us, singing with us.”
That “fooling”? It’s serious work. “I’m a fool in the ancient sense,” Mac said. “Somebody who’s a little outside the mainstream culture but comes from it and so is able to address the power structure. Someone so oddly attired that they stand out in a room and can be heard in a way different from other people. The fool is much less normal than, say, a satirist. That’s one difference between me and Jon Stewart.”
Drag, that “odd attire,” is a prime tool. “I don’t know who first said it, but, ‘It’s all drag,’ ” Mac said. “The construction worker is wearing construction drag, the office worker wears office drag. Your drag is your costume, the story you’re trying to tell. But my story is what’s happening on the inside, so when I wear jeans and a T-shirt, that’s me trying to hide. When I’m on stage, though, I feel the responsibility to take a risk, to say, ‘This is how chaotic and controlled, amusing and serious, I can be.’ ”
Has Mac done the show in jeans and T-shirt? “Yes, in workshops, fine, but it was missing the rebellion the work is about, art as a seditious act. No, no, puritans, you don’t get to control my aesthetics. I have a right to the full range of my expression.”
Wahl says that “somehow, through what he does, Taylor is managing to lead us forward, encouraging us to dream the future. He gets us to think about how we share the work of carrying history forward.”
A 24-Decade History of Popular Music by Taylor Mac. Noon to midnight, June 2 and 9, 2018, Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad St. Tickets: $45-$300. Tickets available for the full 24-hour show or each part separately. Member pre-sale begins Nov. 9, group tickets on Nov. 10, and general public on Nov. 20. Information: 215-893-1999, kimmelcenter.org.