Taylor Mac brings his 24-hour performance piece to the Curran. (Courtesy Ian Douglass)

Taylor Mac shines light on unsung pop music makers

Nostalgia is a dirty word to award-winning playwright-actor Taylor Mac.

After writing himself the role of a nostalgia-fighting flower in 2009’s “The Lily’s Revenge,” he again rebukes sentimental longings for a checkered history in his latest show, “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music.”

The 24-hour-long performance art concert — winner of the 2017 Edward M. Kennedy Award for Drama inspired by American History and a 2017 Pulitzer Prize finalist — will be presented in four six-hour installments starting Friday at San Francisco’s Curran.

“I say in the show that nostalgia is the last refuge for the racist,” Mac says. “So it’s really about dismantling nostalgia, but also supporting a larger history.”

That’s why Mac’s production, covering 246 songs popular in the U.S. from 1776 to 2016, turns the spotlight away from familiar historical despots memorialized in town square statues and history books to the hidden figures whose accomplishments have been largely ignored.

With that in mind, Chapter I: 1776-1836 focuses on the little-known Yankee Doodle Dandy and the early women’s lib movement; Chapter II: 1836-1896, the gay poet Walt Whitman; Chapter III: 1896-1956, a Jewish tenement and a zoot suit riot; and Chapter IV: 1956-the present, gay activist Bayard Rustin’s March on Washington and the ensuing LGBTQ rights movement.

“It’s a subjective historical romp,” Mac says. “We use lots of different musical vernaculars to tell the story of the desperate communities who are building themselves as a result of being torn apart throughout history.”

Originally developed with music director Matt Ray in 2010, the show, performed by an extravagantly costumed Mac, a backing orchestra and an ensemble of “Dandy Minions,” is a reaction against the “disturbing push toward homogeneity” Mac witnessed growing up in Stockton, where he says he learned nothing about LGBTQ history and so assumed that gays had no agency.

It only was when he attended the first AIDS Walk San Francisco in 1987 at age 14 that he discovered the truth.

“There they were having tons of agency and obviously were a part of history,” he says. “So I wanted to make a metaphor for representation of all of those feelings, thoughts and experiences with the show.”

Amid continuing debates around dismantling Confederate statues, “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music” asks audiences to reconsider which historical figures to romanticize.

“It is about tearing down the statues,” Mac says. “[Pres. Trump] said, ‘You’re changing history.’ No, we’re shining a light on the other history. The show is about acknowledging that other histories have existed, and the only use of history is if it’s of use, if it’s there to help us live in the present moment. Otherwise, forget it.”

IF YOU GO
Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History Of Popular Music
Presented by Curran and Stanford Live
Where: Curran, 445 Geary St,, S.F.
When: 5 p.m. Sept. 15, Sept. 22; 2 p.m. Sept. 17, Sept. 24
Tickets: $49 to $285
Contact: (415) 358-1220, www.sfcurran.com

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