A cabaret singer will unearth queer histories at Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center Thursday, September 17.
Taylor Mac will be wearing stiletto heels and sequined gowns as he croons or belts out period songs from America’s early decades. The show, called A 24-Decade History of American Popular Music: Act 1 is a musical romp that has some ties to the Upper Valley. But it had its beginnings in 1987. That’s when Mac, then a teenager, saw his first AIDS march in San Francisco.
“What has stuck with me from that day 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,” Mac says in the program notes.
The New York City dweller arrived at a Hanover hotel by bus wearing jeans and a t-shirt. But that, Mac explained, is just a costume. The show-stopping razzle-dazzle finery worn onstage tells a truer story of a fluid gender identity. Some people call Taylor Mac a drag queen. But in fact the dramatic persona is more complicated than that.
“The drag for me on the stage is what I look like on the inside that I’m letting other people see for the first time — and the drag is always different regarding the topic I am talking about, so there’s a lot of thought that gets put into 'what’s this show about, what’s the idea of the show?'” he says.
That’s pretty hard to pin down because this work in progress, when finished, will last 24 hours. For that extravaganza in New York next year, Mac will re-frame over 240 American songs to tell the hidden story of groups missing from American history textbooks.
“An example might be, when we talk about slavery we never think that two slaves were probably lovers; two men were probably lovers at some point, right? Slavery becomes the conversation. So an interesting thing to think about is obviously there are two men who were lovers,” Mac says.
The performance at the Hopkins Center's Moore Theater will be a three-hour excerpt, spotlighting only the first three decades of American history — a time, Mac says, when spirituality was sometimes tainted with institutionalized homophobia. When the singer dons a low-cut 18th-century frock and wig all made out of metallic ribbons, a usually somber early American hymn gets notched up a few decibels.
“The idea with Amazing Grace is that we wanted something that is in line with religious ritual that we could take it and twist it a little bit,” Mac explains.
In the show, the song sounds a little more like a devilish Janis Joplin than an angelic chorister. Yet there’s also jubilation in the singer's voice.
To develop some of this project Mac visited people and places in the Upper Valley. At an historic meeting house he found a possible prop — a stick with a hammer at one end and a feather on the other. The hammer was wielded to wake up men sleeping through church, and the feather tickled women. Mac sees that mallet as an outdated "either-or" view of sexuality.
But he promises not to hit anyone in the audience over the head with it, or with a simplistic moral message, during the sometimes improvisational performance.