As a disco ball dropped down from the theater ceiling, an 80s slow jam started to play and couples all around the room could be seen doing that awkward yet sweet middle school slow dance. The catch? We were in the middle of a performance at the Kennedy Center on Tuesday night when our wildly hilarious and eccentric host, Taylor Mac – dressed in drag with giant wings – instructed the audience to get out of our seats and dance with someone of the same sex.
It would be fair to say that most of us were a little uncomfortable – including me – having wrapped my arms around a short woman I had never even met. But Mac was not making us dance with strangers just for the fun of it; judy (sic, Mac’s chosen gender pronoun) had a point to make. It’s the same point that Mac’s whole show A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (1776-2016) was trying to make: the history of the U.S. has long seen those who are different – whether they are LGBTQ, black, Muslim, women, etc. – be shunned and belittled and has seen people look away at the things that make them uncomfortable. Mac’s performance shows you just how ridiculous some of these beliefs from our forefathers’ time are, how some of those beliefs are still around and encouraging the audience to face those things that make us uncomfortable.
A 24-Decade History in its original form is four, six-hour “Chapter” performances: 24 hours for the 24 decades the U.S. has existed with Mac singing a popular song from each year since 1776. In October 2016, Mac even performed the show for an impressive 24 hours nonstop (that’s 246 songs). While the show has been performed in many different configurations, we saw the abridged version, part of the Kennedy Center’s DIRECT CURRENT celebration – a 15-day lineup of shows through March 19 that highlight contemporary culture and looks to build up young, new audiences. Part drag show, part comedy show and part concert, Mac provides full theatrics with numerous costume changes, a full backing band and several audience participation activities (the aforementioned dancing with strangers), all while singing track selections ranging from “Amazing Grace” to Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam.”
My personal favorite, however, was Mac’s rendition of David Bowie’s “Heroes” that saw a marching band come through the back doors of the theater onto the stage. While each song was sung by Mac with fervor, “Heroes” somehow started big and ended even bigger with all the joy of the end of a movie where the guy gets the girl or the home team wins the championship.
Other standout moments included Mac’s costume stylist Machine Dazzle dancing across the stage at various intervals, guitarist Viva DeConcini slaying the guitar, selected males carrying Mac around like royalty and being serenaded to “Only You” and so many more that it would be impossible to list all the moments that stuck in my brain. And in that way, Mac was truly a success, as no one will ever forget a performance like A 24-Decade History and the lessons we learned while swaying with strangers in a sea of slow dancing.
To learn more about Taylor Mac and his numerous projects, click here.
The Kennedy Center: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org