Martin Luther King Jr. Week began at Kingsbury Hall with Taylor Mac’s “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: 1946-1976.” The show Saturday night was three hours of fun with several musicians, two backup singers and Mac belting out tunes. He had three costume changes in all, beginning with a Jackie-O inspired outfit decorated in American-flag print.
As a performance artist, Mac encouraged a lot of audience participation. Starting with his first segment, he segregated the audience in a simulation of the urban white flight during the late 1940s and ’50s. He told audiences that if they thought this was uncomfortable, they should imagine how much worse it was for people during actual segregation. Everyone was later desegregated and he had the audience humorously cry out their “white guilt.”
The next set of songs were set during the March on Washington. Mac sang a cover of Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam”, that suggested the same message as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. In his letter he states, “Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation . . . justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
While Mac acknowledged there were distinct differences between the civil rights movement and the gay rights or women’s rights movements, he also made it clear that there is no denying their similarities. Particularly the public attitude towards the movements, where it was believed that they were happening too fast and needed to slow down because society wasn’t ready.
During the Stonewall Riots segment of the show, Mac played a cover of “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, wearing a sparkly silver afro and giant peace sign on his back. To simulate the homophobia of the time, he ran through the aisles with his stage hands in tow while the audience threw ping pong balls at them. Mac, who is a Judy Garland fan, then commemorated her 1969 death by picking a girl from the crowd to act as “dead Judy Garland.” He then recruited a few helpers to lift her out of the theatre as the audience threw rose petals on her.
Audience members within the aisles were coupled into same-sex groupings and led into a mass slow-dance to the last song of the night: a sarcastic cover of “Snakeskin Cowboy” by Ted Nugent. For the encore he changed into a purple mohawk with bell bottoms and sang “Purple Rain” by Prince.
Mac made it clear that he wasn’t telling the audience anything they didn’t already know about history. Instead, he presented himself as the audience’s reminder. He added that sometimes a tragedy happens (alluding to President-elect Donald Trump) so that we can all come together to create a comedy.