Christine Drew Benjamin
An hour and a half into Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, the audience members orchestrated the removal of about half the chairs we were sitting on. Blindfolds were passed out by the “dandy minions” and we found our way to various seating positions ranging from sitting cross-legged on the floor to holding tight to a chair that was now claimed. Next, came the grapes. We were asked to find the person beside us and feed them the grape in our hand.
Laughter ensued as we struggled to accomplish this task. It was definitely an intimate moment shared among strangers. Some of us might have even gotten caught up in the moment and forgotten that the blindfolds were passed out to symbolize Braille being created in 1829, as we were currently immersed in ACT II: 1806-1836 of Taylor Mac’s whirlwind adventure. It was mentioned that the goal was to have us blindfolded for the entire hour of this Act and that ideally we should be so bold as to find our way to the bathroom without touching the blindfolds, but asking for that commitment from us would be too mean.
I took off my blindfold when instructed and found myself completely removed from anyone I knew in the room. It was as if I had ventured down the rabbit hole and was placed in a world I was completely unfamiliar. “Okay,” I thought, “now I’m in it.” I found myself surrounded by pieces of wheat straw that hung from the rafters as golden light flooded the space. I was now in Act III: 1836-1866. What occurred during that decade was beautifully crafted puppetry involving two men falling in love while escaping slavery and a “boxing match” between Walt Whitman and Stephen Foster (played by a game audience member) to determine the Father of American Song. After the the battle of words, the decade ended with Taylor Mac performing a haunting rendition of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and leaving us with these lyrics ever so softly:
Let love and friendship on that day,
Their choicest treasures then display,
And everyone will do their part,
To fill with joy the warrior’s heart,
And we’ll all feel gay when Johnny comes marching home
In other renditions of the song, the lyrics read “And let each one perform some part,” which feels appropriate to note as all of us as audience members were playing some part in this show.
Even Taylor Mac mentioned at one point that the audience was the sacrifice. We were there to worship the act of creating and the making of the art: “I’m interested in us in the room together. We share a lot of history we’re still trying to work through.”
It couldn’t feel more appropriate to connect the art of creation to the history we as a nation share. This was especially evident between the decades Act VII: 1956-1986 and Act VIII: 1986-2016.
The audience listened to the songs evolve each hour, so completely engrossed in the decades we were in, that we didn’t even register that we had been in the space for 17 hours non-stop as we were all singing and clapping to “Gloria” by Laura Branigan at 5:30 a.m. We were in this experience together and reminded of how much history we share with each other. We were a community on the verge of a revolution and it could have been the sleep deprivation, but there was an energy surging all around us.
“This is the pageantry of history,” Taylor Mac echoed as the image of a quilt drifted in my mind. Again, I could have been yearning for sleep, dreaming of a bed somewhere, but it was a quilt I saw in my mind that consisted of all of our backgrounds. It reminded me that no matter the distance between us, no matter where we come from, we are all a part of this journey together as a nation. “No matter how many times we press the red tape, we’re still part of the same landscape.
At hour one, the show began with a 24-piece orchestra. Over
the course of each hour, one of them left the stage, leaving Taylor Mac alone
for the final hour. It ended as it should. Not with a raging party (we had
already done that) but with the simplicity of the audience echoing the lyrics:
“You can lie down or get up and play.” I for one, am thankful that I had the
chance to play.
Taylor Mac’s “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music” was supported at the 2015 Sundance Institute Theatre Lab.