A Radical Fairy Realness Ritual: My Date With A Stranger for Taylor Mac's Songs of the American Right Dec 15, 2015
by Tessa Hulls
When Marley Blonsky told me that she was “the least artistic person ever,” I mentally tented my fingers into an evil-genius pose and cackled with (silent) maniacal glee. In my ongoing social experiment to bring performance art virgins to On the Boards for the first time, Marley was precisely the participant I was looking for. She may have started the night never having seen performance art, but she left saying “I will forever associate the junior queer prom with Ted Nugent.” Clearly, progress was made.
Marley and I had never met before, but she is an avid cyclist and it turns out we have mutual friends in bike world. Also, she had once seen a youtube video of me riding a stationary bicycle on a stage while eating nutella and drawing graphs about gangster rap and RV's for a project about solo long distancebike travel—which seemed a bit unfair, because that meant she knew basically everything there is to know about me, whereas I still knew nothing about her.
“I feel like I'm late to the party,” she explains when I ask her why she wants to come see performance art. “It's just a whole world I've never been exposed to.
As my date for both Taylor Mac's A 24 DECADE HISTORY OF POPULAR MUSIC: Songs of the American Right and its preceding studio supper—where chef Derek Bugge stuffs us full of a richly sauced sous vide pork loin topped with shaved apple slaw accompanied by roasted delicata squash and smoke-infused fingerling potatoes— Marley and I spend almost five hours together.
Here are some things that happen during those five hours:
-we watch the bouncing tits of burlesque performer Jesse Belle-Jones lead us through the chorus of “Okie From Muskogee” (I'm proud to be an Okie from Muskogee/A place where even squares can have a ball/We still wave Old Glory down at the court house/And white lightning's still the biggest thrill of all) in a rousing sing along about white supremacy
-we writhe and wiggle our bodies in an act of ritual sacrifice while intermittently yelling out the name “Charlie”
-we all leave our seats and shuffle onto the stage to awkwardly slow dance together
Taylor Mac—whose preferred gender pronoun is judy—is an absolute delight.
From the moment Taylor first comes barreling on stage looking like the statue of liberty played dress up in the band closet before gnawing open a sequin-filled pinata, the laughs start and don't let up. And even as judy speaks with horrified tenderness about the ways in which our society has become stratified and broken to a point where it's hard to muster anything but despair, judy is funny. Very, very funny. And judy's fundamental idealism—judy's fundamental hope—is the through line that touches every element of the evening's spectacle.
Over the course of many years, Taylor Mac is enacting an epic durational piece in which judy performs 240 songs from the last 240 years of the United States. The project will culminate in a 24-hour concert (we are encouraged to bring our bedding and toiletries for that one), but for now, judy is performing smaller, themed concerts—in this instance, songs from the American Right. Which feels terrifyingly pertinent right now.
The show opens with Taylor Mac explaining that together “we are creating a radical fairy realness ritual,” and that might be the closest I can get to telling you what actually happens in the show. In the lobby before we go in, I ask Marley what she is expecting to see. She tells me that she has done a lot of “unfruitful googling,” and that she really has absolutely no clue. “You know how you can usually get a synopsis of the plot or a review or general idea?” she asks rhetorically. “None of what came up talked about any of that.”
Basically, Taylor Mac sings some songs and gets us to participate in some rather strange activities in order to reawaken our ability to believe in the collective power of community. It sounds cheesy when written out that way, but somehow, judy's gorgeously earnest trainwreck (I mean that in the most glorious sense of the word) of a show succeeds in tugging at the ole' heartstrings in a way that can't help but leave you with just a little bit more hope for humankind.
The show closes with Taylor telling us about two of their musical idols, Nina Simone and Patti Smith. Both women, judy says, often sing slightly off key—Smith because she is always screaming, and Simone because she is more invested in the feeling than the technical perfection. “Here's my humanity,” judy tells us. “That's more important than the polish.” Taylor then sits us down on stage and has us sing the same line over and over again: the people have the power. judy directs us to taper off, and as we lapse into silence, the lights fade out with our voices until the show closes with us sitting together in darkness on the stage.
Back out in the lobby, Marley and I have a quick Q and A:
Tessa: In your own words, what just happened?
Marley: We were led on an interactive musical journey through American songs from 1776, led by a fabulous drag queen through song, dance, and interactive performance. Our minds were blown.
T: Was there anything that surprised you?
M: I wasn't expecting the rawness of if, there was no barrier between performer/musician/audience.
T: What was your favorite part?
M: My favorite part was watching the rest of the audience and seeing their reactions.
T: Do you think you'll come back and see more shows at On the Boards?
M: Yes! I feel like I've been let into a whole secret world.
T: How has this changed your perception of performance art?
M: I don't think there are any rules.
Yup, performance art has no rules. Marley, this may have been your first time at On the Boards, but I think you just figured out the crux of it.