Glitter, sequins, tassels and “Songs of the American Right.” Taylor Mac’s Wednesday night performance shined, shimmied, can-canned and bounced around the Woolfe Street Playhouse all while posing questions about the state of society — “radical fairy realness” as Mac called it.
Mac’s performance, his second appearance at the Spoleto Festival, spanned almost 24 decades of music, starting in 1776 with John Newton’s “Amazing Grace,” which Mac tied to the idea of gender acceptance. Mac uses the gender pronoun ‘judy,’ a term chosen to “immediately emasculate whoever tries to make fun of it.”
Much of the night was about taking right-wing conservative songs and spinning out a different meaning. With Ted Nugent’s “Snakeskin Cowboys,” Mac demanded that the crowd take this homophobic rock ballad and turn it into a “gay junior prom song.” Two men from the audience were brought on stage to hold one another and slow dance as judy instructed everyone else to find a partner of the same gender and do the same.
While some people hesitated in meeting the eyes of those beside them, Mac urged them on: “People are dying all over the world and all I’m asking you to do is hug someone of the same gender.” As the couples swayed to the music, the tension and unease faded and melted into a moment of tenderness — around the room strangers were embracing intimately. Yes, it was silly and uncomfortable, but it was also impossible not to feel deeply moved by the moment.
This touchy-feely gooeyness was washed away quickly as Evelyn DeVere, a burlesque performer, came on stage and the night got a tad risque.
Mac unfurled a giant yellow banner with a few lines from Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee” and told the audience it was a “follow-the-bouncing-boobs sing-a-long.”
As Mac lay seductively on the ground below the banner, DeVere hopped word to word as the audience sang:
“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 courthouse, And white lightnin’s still the biggest thrill of all.”
The night was full of laughter, but many of the jokes were statements of truth. Looking around the room, Mac noted the lack of people of color, telling the “Stiletto Festival” goers to make change and progress, before he sang a moving rendition of Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power.”
As Mac instructed the lighting technician to lower the lights just a little more... just a little more... just a little more — until the only light came from the flickering of the table candles — the audience participated one final time, whispering, “People have the power.”
Patrons filtered out quietly, holding onto a mingled mix of sadness and hope. Mac pushed the envelope in the best way possible, making everyone think about the social norms we accept without question.
Dianna Bell is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.