Students from Stanford's Arts Intensive pose backstage at the Curran. (Image credit: Little Fang)
There is something so enchanting about watching Taylor Mac sing “Amazing Grace.” My eyes cannot widen enough. My body responds with goosebumps. This is not my typical reaction to the Christian hymn written in the late eighteenth century by John Newton, an English slave-ship captain turned Anglican clergyman. Barack Obama renditions aside, my usual response is some combination of a sigh and an eye roll—a glimpse, maybe, of what Liz Lemon would look like as a character in a Jane Austen novel.
But just as they did in the hands of our former president, the lyrics take on new meaning when sung by a glammed-up queen in 2017 America: “I once was lost, but now am found, / Was blind, but now I see.” Ecstasy is born from the performance of the sacred—and here, in the church of Taylor Mac’s “Radical Faerie realness ritual,” the ecstasy attained is both spiritual and very, very queer.
In one short clip available on the Curran’s website, we see Taylor singing Newton’s hymn on the Curran’s stage, intercut with images of our performer leading an impromptu parade through the streets of San Francisco. I watched this rendition from my desk at Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Studies, where I serve as managing editor and work to translate and disseminate our innovative gender research, as well as to train and mentor budding feminist journalists.
When I moved to the Bay Area eight months ago for this position, I had no expectations of Silicon Valley—because, frankly, à la Bogie, I didn’t give a damn. I never thought about the Valley because I was living in New York City, home to the bright lights of Broadway (and off-Broadway, and off-off-Broadway...) and the subway dancers’ all-day answer to their cries of What time is it? SHOWTIME! There is nothing like being trapped in a fast-moving metal can, inches away from teenagers nearly kicking you in the face with their haphazard moves, to remind you of the vital life force that underpins the production of all art and culture. Walking across my new campus, behind bespectacled twenty-something men conversing in code—literally—I find myself needing to dig a little deeper to discover that energy.
In Silicon Valley, the revered Eden of the Digital Age, art, not surprisingly, tends to take a back seat to technology. Technology, the mantra goes, can solve everything. All our problems will soon be behind us. What can a show like 24-Decade offer, in the face of that kind of triumphalism?
At the time of this writing, Stanford is about to find out.
It would be easy for the university to uncritically embrace the Valley’s prevailing narrative. Instead, happily, there has been a renewed commitment to the arts here in recent years, highlighted by the inauguration of the school’s new president, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, who has made advancing the arts one of his major priorities.
To that end, earlier this year, Stanford began to formulate a three-week workshop in partnership with Taylor Mac’s creative team, in order to offer students a rare in-depth engagement with a project of 24-Decade’s scope. The collaboration was dreamed up by Stanford Live Executive Director Chris Lorway, the Curran’s Carole Shorenstein Hays, and Stanford Arts Intensive Director Gina Hernandez. By the time you read this, a select group of students will have worked with Mac’s collaborators to create new elements specifically for the Bay Area run of A 24-Decade History. They will also have the opportunity to perform onstage as part of the production. (One of them may be singing to you right now.) Stanford students will play in the orchestra; they will work with Machine Dazzle on the construction of new costumes; others will appear in the show as Dandy Minions, the choric-like players who serve to break down the formal barriers between each evening’s performers and audience.
Rehearsals for the San Francisco run at the Curran. (Image credit: Little Fang)
Lorway attended a performance of Mac’s Lily’s Revenge six years ago; since then, he has identified himself as a lifelong fan. “I watched [A 24-Decade] as Taylor slowly pieced it together over the past five years, at a variety of spaces,” Lorway explained. He came to the Stanford Live job last year, brought in, he told me, “to shake things up.” For him, the way forward was clear: “I knew I wanted to do something with Taylor.”
Stanford graduate student Lily Lamboy is participating in the Arts Intensive, and is slated to play a Dandy Minion during the show’s run at the Curran. Lamboy attended Mac’s “1776–1836” show when it was at the Curran last year; she told me it was “the best thing [she’s] ever seen.” In our interview, she joked about her acceptance into the Arts Intensive, saying that “the last time I felt so excited getting into anything was when I was accepted into Stanford.”
Lily Lamboy builds costume pieces with designer Machine Dazzle. (Image credit: Little Fang)
For Lamboy, who is also one of the founding members of the Stanford Women in Theater Company, the university’s collaboration with Mac’s team bespeaks what she calls a kind of “arts renaissance” at the school, as well as the university’s commitment to “making arts careers viable for students.” She commended the university for “building a bridge between student work and professional work” in the arts, and for opening its doors to a show like Mac’s—one that challenges history by putting a spotlight on “oppression in America, and the power structures that have marginalized the majority of people in American history.”
Harry Elam, Vice President for the Arts at Stanford, echoed Lamboy’s sentiments. “For audiences, Taylor Mac’s decade-by-decade insightful, humorous, and innovative commentary on American history speaks profoundly to the presence and power of the past,” he told me. “And for our students, who are fortunate enough to participate in the project, this represents an extraordinary opportunity to work with one of the most significant and compelling artists in American theater on a show that will have a lasting impact. We hope that this is the first in a series of such events.”
The collaboration serves as a timely reminder that our corner of California has many stories to tell. Tech may be the defining industry of the 21st century, but what has come to be known as Silicon Valley has a rich history of revolutionary ideas and ethics. American counterculture is deeply rooted in the Bay Area, from the liberation efforts of the Black Panthers, founded in Oakland, to gay activism in San Francisco and the Free Speech Movement of 1960s Berkeley. Regional experimental theater took off around then, too, especially thanks to the founding of the San Francisco Actor’s Workshop. Producers, playwrights, and directors moved west. While the heartland of mid-twentieth-century America bred a culture of conservatism, isolationism, and conformity, the Bay Area cultivated cutting-edge, radical cultures.
And, in fact, the origin story of A 24-Decade History begins in the Bay Area. Taylor Mac, raised in Stockton, California, traveled to San Francisco as a teenager to participate in an AIDS action in 1987. The event changed his life. “The action was a profound experience for me,” he wrote later. “A fairly isolated suburban queer kid who had never met an out-of-the-closet homosexual, I was suddenly exposed to thousands of queers.” The experience shaped Taylor’s political conscience: “What has stuck with me from that day,” he wrote, “was experiencing a community coming together—in the face of such tragedy and injustice—and expressing their rage (and joy at being together) via music, dancing, chanting, and agency. Not only was the community using itself to destroy an epidemic, but the activists were also using a disease, their deterioration and human imperfection, as a way to aid their community. In many ways my entire career has been about reenacting this experience on stage, in one form or another.”
Taylor Mac in A 24 Decade at the Curran. (Image credit: Little Fang)
Twenty years after that demonstration, we have the chance to see what Taylor saw. A 24-Decade History of Popular Music satirizes history in order to expose how we as a people move on, yet fail to progress as a society. Time carries us forward, but Americans are still plagued by the same societal ills, the same bigotry, the same misogyny, and the same racism that have been with us from the beginning.
In the face of that adversity, Mac asks us, “How do we build a community while being torn apart?” This question ignites the performance, and binds 24-Decade’s 246 songs together.
We’re not just looking backward; Mac enables his audience to imagine a new future through this queer interrogation of the past. This imagining of the new is critical to the social catharsis of a nation built on slavery and systemic oppression. Hour by hour, Mac confronts historical traumas that have been suppressed by the whitewashing and streamlining of American history. Out of sophomoric and hostile discomfort, we have refused to redress those traumas; here in America in 2017, there is much in this show that will hit home.
Arts Intensive students channel their inner divas with Machine Dazzle. (Image credit: Little Fang)
Mac makes us see things we have not seen before. To look at just one other song, slated for the third night of the Curran run: what can we find in Taylor’s remaking of the 1920s ditty “Happy Days are Here Again”? If we remember it at all today, the song is understood to describe the sheer joy felt after hard times. (Franklin Delano Roosevelt used it for his 1932 presidential campaign.) It symbolizes collective psychological release. But in another video available online, Mac is quick to provide context to interrupt this knowledge. The song, he tells us, was written after 16.5 million people died in the Great War, a magnitude of atrocity no one had ever seen before. Mac explains that this song represents a collective decision Americans were forced to make: They could either allow themselves to acknowledge their trauma, or they could deny it, and suppress any inkling of depression. With “Happy Days,” Americans chose the latter. Mac’s performance of it conveys a very American state of mind: our frantic anxiety vaguely cloaking our collective trauma.
Moments like this force the audience, especially an actively participatory audience like Mac’s, to wake up. To see what lies beneath the glittery surface of American nostalgia. To “see”—to return us to the curtain raiser—that to which we were previously “blind.” That is the amazing grace of this performance.
In the Curran’s “Amazing Grace” video, Mac isn’t just rehearsing Newton’s words. He strategically begins his rendition with a verse (“When we’ve been here ten thousand years...”) first inserted by Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which borrowed the lines from another hymn popular in the African American spiritual tradition. Mac’s queering of the song is thus further informed by this reordering of verses, and the evocation of black spiritual folksong. His rendition manifests the vision of America we want to believe in; a land meant for everyone, with all voices woven into the fabric of our nation. Reckoning with our history through this profound trans-historical juxtaposition brings a new hope for a more civilized, peaceful society—and a better America, flourishing for many years to come.
Reprinted with permission from the Curran
Related Event: Wed, Sept 27
Taylor Mac's A 24-Decade History of Popular Music at Bing Concert Hall.