It begins with an apology. An act of taking responsibility for the wrongdoings of our ancestors, namely for the oppression of Native American tribes. “A radical realness faerie ritual sacrifice”. The balm of which America is found wanting. It is the year 1776, and Taylor Mac travels three decades in three hours. This performance is but a snapshot of the full piece – the first act of a 24-hour political protest. Here, the audience is invited to rebel, to embrace discomfort, and to use these chapters of American history to take the fight against conformity into the future.
Joined by a 24-piece orchestra, Mac uses popular music as a vehicle to navigate social injustices. Silver fringing lights up the stage, throwing musicians and their instruments into a harmonious constellation. A group of five sit in rocking chairs, each immersed in knitting and embroidery. They act as a constant reminder of the verb – the process of creation. Dressed as ‘Judy’, Mac’s alter ego shimmers. It is the making of the art that we must worship, not the artist themselves, she says. Her every movement is hypnotic, with a hoop skirt and headdress of streamers starry with stories.
Assisted by local performers (the Dandy Minions), there begins a kaleidoscope of bodies. Persecution, patriotism, and sound become one frivolous pattern – a constitution made symmetrical by Judy’s explosive vibrato. She is the Queen and we are her loyal servants, ordered into participation of the most unbelievable kind. Names of congressmen are passed to the upper circles and torn into confetti, creating a snowstorm in the stalls. The communal biting of an apple is also intensely satisfying. As teeth tear though the skin of Eden, all that can be heard is joyful mastication as flesh arrives on the tongue. An enormous game of beer pong makes friends of strangers, and choruses break out instinctively. It is a baptism of the British – an event in which our stereotypical traits are forgotten, and we become something other than ourselves.
A 24 Decade History of Popular Music makes stark the power of theatre. Judy could have taken us anywhere under the guise of art, and we would have followed. The intimacy, closeness, and risk of breaching ones’ comfort zone were so greatly rewarded that her approval becomes almost addictive. Dramatic readings produce a commentary on current events, and lyrics are translated, uncovering the tales behind each song. Morals run wild, and laughter bubbles at the lips, making stitches in the sides. There is a delightful angst hanging in the air, along with a sense of regret. “You feel less oppressed, don’t you?” Judy sighs.
When the night draws to a close in 1806, the masses vacate the Barbican with the congress still stuck in their hair. Arms are looped together, and mouths take their final swigs of Yankee Rooster beer. It is as if you are leaving behind friends that you have known your entire life – companions with whom you have celebrated the abused and vilified the abusers. This production is the experience of a lifetime.
A 24 Decade History of Popular Music: The First Act is playing at the Barbican Theatre until June 30
Photo: The Barbican