As a young teen who hadn’t yet come out, Taylor Mac’s first time seeing an open homosexual was a revelation.
Visiting San Francisco in 1987, Mac — who uses judy as a gender pronoun, as an homage to Judy Garland — wasn’t just seeing a fellow queer person for the first time, but witnessing 6,000 people in force demonstrating as part of San Francisco’s inaugural AIDS Walk.
Having been raised in the more conservative suburbs of Stockton, California, when the AIDS epidemic was taking place, Mac says this act of openly displaying and politicizing one’s own identity proved formative.
“It framed everything in my life,” says Mac, who will perform a traveling holiday-themed show, “Holiday Sauce” at the Modlin Center on Dec. 7 and 8. “It politicized me. I came to an understanding that I didn’t have to ask for permission to participate in the creativity of my own survival, and I guess I see the theater as the creativity of my own survival.”
It’s through this framework that the Pulitzer Prize finalist and MacArthur genius grant recipient pairs grand, glittering performances with revolutionary intentions. Through performance, the New York-based drag artist aims to subvert capitalism, reinterpret the past and express themselves politically.
Mac’s masterwork, “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music,” covers American popular music from 1776 through 2016. In telling the history of the United States through the stories of people on the margins of society, Mac performs a total of 246 songs through 24 hour long sets. These shows culminated in one 24-hour performance in 2016. Mac still performs the work in shorter incarnations.
Though a jovial and articulate interviewee, Mac isn’t an easy person to categorize, and has resisted attempts by others to do so in the past. After a member of the press described the work as Ziggy Stardust meets Tiny Tim, Mac responded by titling a show “Comparison Is Violence, or the Ziggy Stardust Meets Tiny Tim Songbook.”
With “Holiday Sauce,” Mac hopes to create a queer holiday celebration.
“The holidays are always kind of a rough time. It was a lot of family members who were homophobic to me and a lot of fighting, and then also capitalism run amok,” Mac says. “The two options were the spirituality of the holidays, which meant Christianity in my family, and that was oppressive in that it was telling me I was bad for being a homosexual, and then consumerism, which to me seems destructive of our planet and of our souls, and the opposite of what I was being told Christianity was supposed to be about.”
With the show, Mac attempts to square love of holiday music with an aversion to much of the season’s messaging. Through reinterpreting holiday music – and adding some songs that others might not consider holiday songs – Mac wants to create some holiday cheer for those might otherwise avoid a holiday show.
“It keeps getting longer every year, the holiday season. It’s a good three months of misery,” Mac says. “Basically, what people are going to see is a lot of glitter, a lot of sparkly things, a lot of amazing, wonderful outfits designed by Machine Dazzle, my wonderful costume designer, that’s just over-the-top extravagant.”
Regarding the decision to tour, Mac says it’s healthy for artists to break out of their respective bubbles and to expose locales to a type of show they might not otherwise experience.
“You can’t really call yourself a theater artist if you don’t tour,” Mac says. “You have to go out there and see different communities and understand how the different rhythms work, and also it’s just wonderful to perform [for] new audiences.”
Past reviews have noted jokes about President Donald Trump in the show. Asked about this, Mac acknowledges bringing up Trump a bit, but says that the show isn’t focused on him.
“You can’t ignore it, but you can’t indulge it so much that he takes everything over, otherwise he’s winning,” Mac says. “He just wants to steal the story of America for himself and make it his story. We’ve got to keep reminding ourselves that it’s our story, and he’s a part of it, but he’s not the lead in the story. We are the lead in the story, meaning the audience and the collaborators that I’m working with.
The American people are the lead and not one person.”
Perhaps one of the more surprising aspects of Mac’s career is recent collaborations with two Broadway actors very much in the mainstream: Mandy Patinkin, with whom judy costarred in “The Last Two People on Earth: an Apocalyptic Vaudeville,” and Nathan Lane in Mac’s first Broadway play, “Gary: a Sequel to Titus Andronicus.”
“I’m a talent whore,” Mac explains. “To me the boundaries of downtown/uptown, experimentalism or realism or popular art forms or nonpopular art forms, none of that matters to me.”
As for new projects, Mac is working on a jazz musical adaptation of Plato’s “The Apology of Socrates,” and “The Fre,” an all-ages show loosely based on Aristophanes’ “The Frogs.”
“The audience hangs out in a ball pit, and they throw balls at each other through the play,” says Mac of the latter, which will have its world premiere with New York’s Flea Theater this spring. “It’s so much about our polarization and how we’re in our little corners, and how we’re trying to find our way to each other.”
“Holiday Sauce” plays Dec. 7 and 8 at the Modlin Center for the Arts, 453 Westhampton Way. For information, visit modlin.richmond.edu or call 289-8980.