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A Trump-Tinged ‘Julius Caesar’: What Now?

June 12, 2017

A 2003 production of 'Julius Caesar' at Cal Shakes, directed by Jonathan Moscone, featured L. Peter Callender as a Caesar that recalled the director's father, the late George Moscone.

In Act III of Hamlet, when the skirt-chasing, king-killing, crown-usurping villain Claudius watches a play entitled The Murder of Gonzago about a similarly skirt-chasing, king-killing, crown-usurping villain, he recoils at seeing himself portrayed and runs screaming from the theater: “Give me some light, away!”
So it’s been no surprise over the past few days to witness the knee-jerk reactions from the Trump team, the right-wing media and two major corporations to the Public Theater’s latest production of Julius Caesar, which depicts the murder of a Trump-esque Caesar in gory fashion. Over the weekend, the president’s own son performed a wounded sparrow act on Twitter, Breitbart and Fox acted suitably scandalized and Delta Airlines and Bank of America withdrew financial support of the show.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the political fence, the media has been aflame with defenses of Shakespeare’s 1599 political drama (Shakespeare makes it clear that the murder of Julius Caesar isn’t a good thing) as well as Oskar Eustis’ production for the Public (the director’s production notes include a warning: “Those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic methods pay a terrible price and destroy their republic.”)
At a time when stage productions outside of Hamilton rarely make headlines, it’s been edifying to see the art form do what it was set up to do since back in the days of Aristophanes and Aeschylus: make trouble. But because we’re not used to theater having this kind of impact, we’re left wondering, what now? “People talk about what theater does, but it’s rare that it actually hits a nerve,” says theater director and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ Jonathan Moscone. “Here we are in a situation where theater is hitting a nerve and we don’t know what to do with it.”
But there are several things art can do in the face of such an assault on the freedom of creative expression. The most important is to stick up for itself.
Moscone has an interesting cautionary tale about the time he produced a production of Julius Caesar for the California Shakespeare Theater that speaks to this necessity. It was in 2003, when Moscone was near the start of his tenure as artistic director of the company. His take on Caesar -- like all productions of this play -- was politically charged, referencing the 1978 slaying of his father, San Francisco mayor George Moscone.
In preview performances, Moscone had the actor playing Brutus pull a gun and shoot Caesar, instead of stabbing him. This theatrical glance at real-life events -- the death of the mayor -- caused consternation among audience members in previews, Moscone says. “The thing that triggered this was literally a trigger,” Moscone says. “I had people run up to me and yell at me for doing that.”
Still relatively young in his role with the company, Moscone decided to replace the gun with a knife. “It was a decision I made at the time as a new artistic director,” Moscone says. “Would I do that now? No.”
A 2003 production of 'Julius Ceasar' at Cal Shakes, directed by Jonathan Moscone, featured L. Peter Callender as a Ceasar that recalled the director's father, the late George Moscone.
A 2003 production of 'Julius Caesar' at Cal Shakes, directed by Jonathan Moscone, featured L. Peter Callender as a Caesar that recalled the director's father, the late George Moscone.
Later in that same season, when audiences complained about a Cal Shakes staging of Measure for Measure which included an executioner wearing a George W. Bush mask, Moscone didn’t change course. “It’s a dangerous place to be,” Moscone says. “We should be doing this all the time.”
But there’s a certain peril in staging productions that make obvious political parallels between Shakespeare’s world and our own. Should they end up failing in their mission to get the message across, they fail all the more spectacularly. Which brings me to the second important thing theater should do at this moment, which is to more carefully consider its tactics.
When the Oregon Shakespeare Festival produced Julius Caesar in 2011 with a woman in the title role -- Vilma Silva -- you couldn’t help but have to balance Silva’s brilliant portrayal of a leader drunk on power with the murder of a female premier destroyed by the men around her. The production brought out all the complexities of Shakespeare’s play while making a strong feminist political statement without needing to resort to putting Silva in a Hillary Clinton pantsuit or Queen Victoria pearls.
The reason we keep coming back to Shakespeare and other great dramatists like him is because their messages about power, leadership and its undoing transcend the moment. They endure. So whether a director puts Caesar in a toga or a red tie ultimately doesn’t matter. If it’s a strong production, its resonance to today’s world should be loud and clear.
If only that were really the case. In the din of today’s media landscape, where many people draw their conclusions based on a headline or an opinion expressed in 140 characters or less, it makes sense, at one level, for a theater director who wants to make an impression beyond the confines of an auditorium to go for the bleeding obvious -- and put Trump, complete with gold bathtub and Slavic-accented wife, right there up on stage. After all, great art is subtle and rarely easy on the brain; understanding it requires patience, and who the hell has time for that? “Shakespeare demands breathing room and we as a nation are not breathing,” Moscone says. “We’re choking and everything is crisis responding.”
This reality causes Eric Ting, who took over from Moscone as artistic director of Cal Shakes in 2015, a great deal of concern. He notes that the problems for the Public arose when people took the one epic moment in the company’s production of Julius Caesar -- the grisly murder scene of the Trump-like Caesar figure -- out of context, unable to see the larger and more nuanced message of the whole play. “This is a single moment in a production of a great, classical drama,” Ting says. “What is missed is the context of that moment: that Julius Caesar is a play that says ‘violent means beget violent ends.’”

What’s a theater director to do? By presenting Shakespeare (or for that matter Bertolt Brecht, Suzan-Lori Parks or Caryl Churchill) in all its depth and subtlety, one risks reaching only fans of the performing arts, and the show tip-toeing quietly into oblivion. But when trying to grab the public’s attention with some kind of shock tactic that causes less than a moment of thought prior to eliciting a reaction, there’s every chance it will be misinterpreted.
Which brings me to my third and final thing that theater can do: It should never give up. What the hoopla surrounding the Public’s Julius Caesar teaches us is that this art form can make a great noise and send the corporate overlords into a tailspin. As I write, I wouldn’t be surprised if others among the Public’s sponsors stepped up to redouble their support of the company in the wake of Delta Airlines’ and Bank of America’s withdrawal.
And if the day should come when we end up in a nuclear wasteland, where all power is down and none of our electronic devices work, at least there’ll still be theater -- a few actors walking across a stage -- to bear witness, tell the important stories of our times, and spread hope.



Why We Should Sing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’s’ Obscure Fifth Verse

March 3, 2017

L.A.-based history professor Stephen Mucher thinks the fifth verse of the national anthem
is the one we should focus on today (Photo: Chloe Veltman)
Go here to check out the full radio, text, photo and video package for KQED's The California Report and NPR's All Things Considered I created about the little-known fifth verse of 'The Star Spangled Banner' -- a verse which a Los Angeles-based history professor thinks is the one we should be singing today. 

You can also hear the radio story separately here: 

And here is a link to the video piece: 

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SFCM Talks: The Role of Arts Journalism
San Francisco Conservatory of Music Online News

February 21, 2017

Chloe Veltman, Senior Arts Editor at KQED, visited SFCM early this February to give a talk titled “How to Get Noticed” to set the business mindset that students need as they develop programs and concert series of their own. Over her career, Veltman has contributed to media outlets including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal, in addition to authoring the blog lies like truth, and worked as an associate producer and screenwriter for Keeping Score with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony.

Veltman started her talk by reading several recently rejected journalistic proposals, all of which were valid and projects in their own right, like the world premiere of Dream of the Red Chamber at the San Francisco Opera. What was it about these projects that didn’t make them appealing options as journalistic features? What was it about these projects that didn’t allow them to come to fruition as journalistic features? It became clear that while many had interesting angles to explore, they lacked a connection to the present moment and current political climate. “We’re living in a world where, in the foreseeable future, we can’t in good conscience take a business-as-usual approach,” explained Veltman. “We can’t do this as arts journalists and, as I’m going to suggest today, we can’t as artists either. Why? Because regardless of your political beliefs, it’s impossible not to see that every day brings news of new protests against the Trump administration, immigrant ban policy, climate change denial and other issues. The reactions to all of this are international in scope.”

Veltman did not suggest doing away with the old, but simply recommended changing at least one aspect of the performance. She explained that no matter what one’s political views are, it is a crucial aspect of the artist’s life to be a part of the dialogue between the world around you, the press, and the audience. Changing the frame can be anything from bringing classical music to the people in schools or public parks, to holding a benefit concert, to prominently featuring female or Muslim composers, to composing a work in reaction to the world around you. Student Andrew Grishaw ’17 attended the talk and said, "The talk that Chloe Veltman gave was intriguing because of the connection she made between the arts and the political climate. Specially, we spoke about how to connect to all sides of the political spectrum through the work that we do. This is something I believe is vital to the improvement of our communities and our nation."

Veltman emphasized her conviction about “how artists and arts journalists can learn from each other to encourage the creation of art that’s meaningful and puts culture in the center of our eyes rather than the fringes, that makes art something that we need to have rather than a nice luxury.” Violist Anna Heflin ’16 attended the talk and was “happy to hear that arts journalists want us as musicians to continually change the frame, because that gives us a lot more artistic freedom and supports our endeavors.”

This month, current SFCM students, including vocalist Jasmine Johnson ’18, are taking Veltman’s advice, joining with faculty and alumni to present STRANGE FRUIT, an evening of music, poetry, and original works celebrating the black experience. Its mission is to promote multicultural, experiential arts, and the positive image of ethnic diversity at SFCM. On STRANGE FRUIT, Johnson says, “Raising black awareness for the creations and inventions of black Americans should happen everyday, not just during black history month, but that may never happen. That being said, art is the creative expression that unites us as humans. I believe it is important for the arts to promote a positive image of creative ethnic diversity to reflect the political climate in America because art is a universal language that has the ability to change the world.”

Find the original story here.

Dorothea Lange Photos Lead Historians to Japanese Camp Survivors

Read and listen to the original radio and web story at KQED's website here.

There are nearly 200 photographs in Michael Williams and Richard Cahan’s new book Un-American: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War Two. But one in particular stands out for Cahan. “The photograph of Rachel, in my opinion, was the most compelling and beautiful photograph in the book,” Cahan says. “Dorothea Lange had this unique ability to get so close to people, even people that were strangers, and look into their eyes.”
Lange’s portrait of Rachel Kuruma is startling in its simplicity: The 11-year-old San Francisco schoolkid looks into the camera, smiling quietly, in a cute, floral-print dress. The shock comes at the fact that only days after Lange shot this photo at Raphael Weill Elementary School on April 20, 1942, Kuruma and her family were bundled off to prison camp.

Awakening long-lost memories

Fast forward 75 years, and Kuruma is back at her former school for the very first time since Lange took her picture in 1942. Cahan and Kuruma have become friends since he tracked her down for his book project last year, and we're there to see if the surroundings might help jog childhood memories for Kuruma. But the school, which is now called Rosa Parks Elementary, has changed almost beyond recognition since she was a student. And the spry, 85-year-old has absolutely no recollection of posing for Lange.
Rachel Kuruma returns to Raphael Weill Elementary School, now called Rosa Parks Elementary, on Jan. 24, 2017. It was her first time back since Dorothea Lange took her picture in 1942.
Rachel Kuruma returns to Raphael Weill Elementary School, now called Rosa Parks Elementary, on Jan. 24, 2017. It was her first time back since Dorothea Lange took her picture there in 1942.
Cahan has brought a copy of Lange’s photo along. Being at the school and looking at the picture gradually brings back distant memories for Kuruma of the three-plus years she spent living in the prison camps at Tanforan, California, and Topaz, Utah as a girl. “The toilets, none of them had doors,” she says. “So you tried to pick one that was facing against the wall, preferably the one in the corner so you have some privacy.”

Executive order 9066

On Feb. 19, 1942, in response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This led to the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II at prison camps across the western United States.

Roosevelt’s government hired photographers like Lange to show off the camps in their best light. But she and some of the other hired guns ended up exposing what life in the dusty, hastily-built enclaves was really like. As a result, Cahan says, some of her images were locked away during the war. “They were impounded primarily because they gave away ‘military secrets’ -- that guards were using machine guns and that there was barbed wire around the camp,” Cahan says.

Tracking down survivors

After the war, the photos ended up in the National Archives in Washington, D.C, where the collection can still be found today. (It’s also available online.) Many more photos from the approx. 7,500-image collection have appeared in publications since the war years. But Cahan and his co-author decided they wanted to go deeper, to truly get people to understand what innocent Japanese Americans went through during the war. So they set about capturing the personal stories of as many of the people in the pictures as they could.
Rachel Kuruma poses for Richard Cahan in roughly the same spot where Dorothea Lange took Kurumas picture on Apr. 20, 1942.
Rachel Kuruma poses for Richard Cahan in roughly the same spot where Dorothea Lange took Kurumas picture on Apr. 20, 1942.
“The book lets you hear the words of the people who were picked up,” Cahan says. “When you see a person 75 years earlier and hear them talk about that very picture and that very day and what happened to them, I think it has great power. I think that there’s an emotional hole that it fills that really has not been filled before.”
Cahan says tracking down survivors wasn’t easy. In Kuruma’s case, her name was misspelled in the records -- as “Rachael Kurumi” instead of “Rachel Kuruma." “I had the list of all of the survivors of the camps,” Cahan says. “There was no ‘Rachael’ spelled that way, and there was no ‘Kurumi’ spelled that way."
Rachel Kuruma hung up the phone when Richard Cahan called her for the first time. Now the prison camp survivor and photo journalist are friends.
Rachel Kuruma hung up the phone when Richard Cahan first called her. Now the prison camp survivor and photojournalist are friends.
A search on the genealogy website led Cahan to a 1949 yearbook photo of Kuruma as a student at Lowell High School. He did more poking around on Google. Then, one day, he got hold of her phone number. But Kuruma thought the caller was trying to sell her something. “I called her, and she picked up the phone,” Cahan says. “I said ‘My name is Rich Cahan and I’m a…’ and before I had said ‘journalist’ she hung up the phone.”
Cahan was persistent. Eventually, he managed to meet Kuruma. She says she rarely thinks or talks about the prison camps, and had no idea the photograph existed until the day Cahan showed it to her. “He’s talking about this picture. I say, what picture?” Kuruma says. “So he brought it over and I looked. It was kind of interesting.”

The past as a catalyst for present-day activism

Some of the people the authors approached weren’t so taken by surprise when Cahan got in touch. Berkeley psychotherapist, filmmaker and activist Satsuki Ina was born in a maximum security prison camp in Tule Lake, California in 1944, after her parents were labeled as dissidents for refusing to swear unqualified allegiance to the United States. She’s studied the National Archives photo collection. The arresting image in Cahan and Williams’ book of a young woman standing in line in San Francisco, waiting to hear news of her fate, is one Ina knows very well.
Shizuko Ina waits in line in San Francisco to hear news of her fate in the wake of President Franklin D. Roosevelt signing Executive Order 9066.
Shizuko Ina waits in line in San Francisco to hear news of her fate in the wake of President Franklin D. Roosevelt signing Executive Order 9066.
“This is a photo of my mother,” she says, looking at the picture in Un-American. “She had no idea what this was going to lead to, where they were going to be and for how long. So I see that expression on her face. It captures the confusion and the fear that she wrote about in her diary.”
Ina has made a study of her parents’ diaries and letters from the camp. She shows me her mother’s original journals, segments of which she gave Cahan and Williams permission to use in their book. Ina locates the entry dated Friday, Apr. 24, 1942, from right before Lange took that photo of her mother.
She reads it aloud, and the reality of this young woman’s predicament, as she waits to receive her marching orders, suddenly feels three-dimensional: “Twelve noon today our evacuation order is effective," Ina reads. "Every corner of the block has a notice on it. There are so many people that we’ve been waiting almost three hours to get a slip of appointment for tomorrow.”
Satsuki Ina reads her mothers journal at home in Berkeley.
Satsuki Ina reads her mother's journal at home in Berkeley.
Ina has made documentary films based on the diaries and other memorabilia, and is at work on a book. Like others from her community, she sees a worrying link between how the U.S. government treated Japanese Americans during the Second World War and recent calls by the Trump administration for a Muslim registry. “People were hysterical about Japan attacking the U.S.," she says. "So today of course that resonates with the same kind of mass hysteria that is being rung up about terrorism.”
Like Cahan, Ina says she wants to do everything she can to teach people about this irredeemable chapter of American history -- to prevent the same horrors from happening again.
Editor's note: Although the phrase "internment camps" is most commonly used in this country to describe the sites where 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated  during the WWII, many members of the Japanese community believe that "internment" is not an accurate descriptor for the camps. Members of the Japanese community believe they were wrongfully imprisoned, and many use the terms "incarceration camps" or "prison camps" to describe the sites where they were detained against their will. We opted to use these terms in lieu of the more common term out of respect for the community.

VIDEO: Civil Disobedience Circus, Soccer Hip-Hop Theater and More

November 11, 2016

Watch Chloe's latest KQED Newsroom segment with host Thuy Vu:

For the original story, click here



KQED is encouraging entrepreneurship and innovation with an in-house incubator
Nieman Lab

October 19, 2016

This isn't an article written by me, but it features me. So I thought I'd share it here. Nieman Lab, the media think tank at Harvard, did a story about KQED's Lab, of which I was a part. I developed a project called Field Trips as part of The Lab. Nieman's Joseph Lichterman interviewed me for this story. 



How I Survived Taylor Mac’s 24-Hour-Long Musical History Lesson

October 12, 2016

In the annals of marathon concert experiences, Taylor Mac’sA 24-Decade History of Popular Music is right up there with legendarily lengthy sets played the likes of the Grateful Dead, Bruce Springsteen and Chilly Gonzales. The acclaimed New York drag performance artist and Stockton native appeared at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, New York over the weekend, presenting a one-off, 24-hour-long musical journey through U.S. history comprising of no less than 246 songs. And I was determined to stay awake for every one of them.

Performer Taylor Mac and music director Matt Ray.
Performer Taylor Mac and music director Matt Ray. (Photo: Ves Pitts)
When Mac brought the first six hours of his magnum opus to San Francisco’s Curran Theatre last January, covering songs that were popular from the years 1776 to 1836, I barely noticed the time shimmy by. Still, I approached the full 24-hour extravaganza with trepidation. It’s been years since I pulled an all-nighter; these days, if I fail to get my full quota of zzz’s, well, I’m just not very nice.
So I asked my friend Matt Walker, a U.C. Berkeley neuroscientist who studies sleep, for advice. “After 16 hours of continued wakefulness, the functionality of your brain and the health of your body start to degrade rapidly,” he said. “Stay away from coffee and alcohol. Do not do operate heavy machinery or drive.”
Okey dokey, then.
In the run-up to the performance, Mac shared with me his own survival plans, which included consuming Japanese rice balls, electrolyte water and apples, and every so often, giving his feet a break. “I’ve learned that changing shoes after every decade is very helpful,” Mac said. “And there are a few decades where I am not in heels.”

The crowd settles down before the start of 'A 24-Decade History of Popular Music', a one-off, marathon performance at St. Ann's warehouse, Brooklyn, NY on Oct. 8-9, 2016
The crowd settles down before the start of ‘A 24-Decade History of Popular Music,’ a one-off, marathon performance at St. Ann’s warehouse, Brooklyn, NY on Oct. 8–9, 2016. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED)
Just shy of noon last Saturday, I showed up at St. Ann’s, in flats. The cavernous space on the Brooklyn waterfront was decked out for the occasion with hammocks, a medical tent and a kiosk offering snacks. I settled into my seat with a notebook and pen. What follows are my impressions of one of the longest — and greatest — feats ever to have unfolded on the American concert stage.
Take heed; it’s long. Believe me, I know.

1776–1786: Act I

After making a public apology and offering his grandmother’s beat-up ukulele to a Native American person for the way in which the early settlers and their descendants screwed over the indigenous people of North America, Mac begins the first of his eight, three-hour-long acts with a discussion about the core values upon which our great nation is based.

Taylor Mac in 'A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: 1776-1806' as part of Curran: Under Construction
Taylor Mac in ‘A 24-Decade History of Popular Music.’ (Photo: Jim Norrena )
The performer takes us through spirited versions of “Amazing Grace,” “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” “Yankee Doodle” and other period favorites charismatically arranged by the production’s formidable music director, arranger and pianist Matt Ray. (“Only 245 songs left to go!” Mac says after finishing the first one. Ray grins.) From these, Mac deduces that the United States’ founding principles, among others, include “hating Congress,” “liking black hair,” and “making things.”
There are several people knitting on stage throughout to underscore his point about maker culture. Mac’s getup sets the tone that will mark nearly all of the costumes for the show: he’s in a beribboned periwig and hoop skirt contraption that I imagine is what Marie Antoinette would look like if she lost her head at a karaoke bar.


A section on women’s lib involving a dress encrusted with disembodied doll’s heads, framed by a couple of smoking wooden chimneys — an homage to the decade in which steam-power was invented. Matthew Flower (a.k.a. Machine Dazzle) is Mac’s costume designer, and truly a mad genius. The man stands about seven feet tall in stilettos and has as many costume changes as the principal performer.

Taylor Mac’s smokestack dress.
Taylor Mac’s smokestack dress. (Photo: Jim Norrena)
In this decade, Mac tells a long yarn about an unhappy love triangle that stops along the way for a feminist take on the tune “God Save the Queen,” as well as “Oh Dear, What Can the Matter Be?” and a lovely harp solo-infused version of the ballad “10,000 Miles.”


A memorable decade, playing ribald drinking songs (“Nine Inch Will Please a Lady”) off against hymns performed by a sniffy, bonneted temperance choir (“Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes”) to provoke a discussion about the often strained coexistence between the puritanical and debauched in American society. Mac appears in an outfit shaped like a barrel with a headdress made of barley sheaths and wine bottle corks.

Taylor Mac explores 18th century drinking culture in Act 1 of ‘A 24-Decade History of Popular Music’
Taylor Mac explores 18th century drinking culture in Act 1 of ‘A 24-Decade History of Popular Music.’ (Photo: Teddy Wolff)
He has us drinking ginger ale (the venue’s license won’t allow booze unless it’s bought from the bar in the lobby) and passing ping-pong balls mouth-to-mouth with our neighbors. I could have used an actual beer to get through this part. But once I had plucked up the courage to pop a ball between the lips of the nice, young woman sitting to my right, and she had returned the favor, I knew Mac could ask me to do almost anything and I would probably comply.
During the hour, Mac asks audience members to share their their favorite puke stories. There’s also a gorgeous choral version of “Shenandoah.” Oh, and Mac’s monologue, about a performance artist who repeatedly pulls chicken legs out of her vagina, eats the meat and then throws the bones out to the audience, will likely stay with me for a long time.

1806–1816: Act II

If you haven’t already guessed, Mac takes audience participation in his shows seriously, and the floor is already a mess of ripped up paper, ping-pong balls, apple cores and empty ginger beer cans from the various antics of the previous three hours. 

The floor of St. Ann’s Warehouse, just a few hours into the show.
The floor of St. Ann’s Warehouse, just a few hours into the show. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED)
I’m gratified to see how many Bay Area people are in the house. A few are involved in the production, including cellist El Beh, singer Brian Rosen and Sister of Perpetual Indulgence Rose Mary Chicken, and many more of us are in the audience.
Mac devotes this section to staging what he calls a “heteronormative jukebox musical about colonization.” A lot of the songs over the hour sound boringly similar to the drinking songs in the last — they go “oom-pah-pah-oom-pah-pah” — and the story about young Irish lovers Harry and Jane separated in the old country and reunited in the new goes on for way too long.
But we get to sing along with the band for a bit, and Beh gets to perform a beautiful duet with Mac, “Bonnie Irish Maid.” As for the costuming, Mac looks like an ostrich had a collision with a candelabra.

Taylor Mac looks like an ostrich had a collision with a candelabra.
Taylor Mac looks like an ostrich had a collision with a candelabra as he involves an audience member in a scene from Act 2 of his show. (Photo: Teddy Wolff)


Mac’s helpers — whom he refers to as his “Dandy Minions”; Rose Mary Chicken is one of them — pass out eye masks. We dutifully move several hundred chairs to the side. The entire audience then spends the next hour stumbling about in the dark. Why? That’s the decade braille was invented. Also, Mac wants us to rely less on our sense of sight. So he has us feed each other grapes, smell carnations, and play a giant game of blind man’s bluff.
I sit in more laps than I care to recall and exchange grapes with a large person with a bushy beard. All the while, Mac tickles our ears with songs. “Cherry Ripe” is a melodious thing. So is “Coal Black Rose,” or at least until Mac tells us it’s about a bunch of sailors looking forward to ending their shift so they can go gang-rape a black female slave.


It’s a relief to get the blindfold off, though I had more fun going sightless for an hour than I thought I would. The next decade deals with the Indian Removal Act. Mac wears a cartoonish milkmaid dress with what looks like small plastic figurines protruding from it. He’s lost a sparkly eyebrow somewhere along the way. As we learn about the Trail of Tears and one poor Native American orphan’s journey from Cherokee lands in Georgia towards Christian salvation in Oklahoma, the cast performs hillbilly, washboard-infused renditions of children’s songs like “Turkey in the Straw” and “Goosey Goosey Gander.”

Taylor Mac and the band perform 19th century children’s songs a cappella.
Taylor Mac and the band perform 19th century children’s songs a cappella. (Photo: Teddy Wolff)
When we reach our destination, Mac throws on the hideous white house lights (he says the lighting in Oklahoma is so bad, it’s “like shopping at Duane Reade”) and throws off his country bumpkin attire. Now he’s singing a murder ballad — “Banks of the Ohio” — in nothing but a pair of sequined crimson panties and a feathered headdress topped with a pair of angry-looking stuffed cockerels. I am in awe.

1836–1846: Act III

The Dandy Minions erect a runway from the stage that cuts the space in two. What follows is perhaps the most pensive and dream-like of all of the show’s sections, dealing with the subject of slavery and the underground railroad that brought captives to freedom. As Mac and his band perform songs like “I’ve Been in the Storm So Long,” “Wade in the Water” and “No More Auction Block for Me,” puppeteers illustrate the spirit of the music with ghostly shadow puppet, marionette, and mannequin sequences.

Puppeteers provide haunting visual storytelling to the section of Taylor Mac’s show that deals with slavery.
Puppeteers provide haunting visual storytelling to the section of Taylor Mac’s show that deals with slavery. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED)


The decades are all starting to blur into each other. I go to the bathroom, get some hummus and veggies from the snack bar and return to the fray. There I find Mac, dressed in another voluminous gown adorned with empty potato-chip packets (to mark the decade of the invention of the potato chip), cut-outs from gay porn magazines, and chess pieces, announcing an epic, lucha libre-style smackdown between Walt Whitman and Stephen Foster for the title of “Father of American Song.”
Mac doesn’t much like Foster, whom he feels is basically a good old boy, entrenched in the ideals of the Old South and undeserving of the musicological adulation he receives today. Whitman, Mac says, is much more progressive a voice. There’s now a boxing ring at one end of the runway. Mac hoists a befuddled young man from the audience to stand in for Foster.

Taylor Mac prepares for an epic smackdown between Stephen Foster and Walt Whitman to decide which of them is the true Father of American Song.
Taylor Mac prepares for an epic smackdown between Stephen Foster and Walt Whitman to decide which is the true Father of American Song. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED)
Then Mac pits chestnuts by the composer like “Camptown Races” and “Massar in the Cold, Cold Ground” against eloquently delivered samples of Whitman’s verse. We’re to yell “Oh Captain, My Captain” if we want Whitman to win, and the flaccid “doo dah, doo dah” for Foster. Of course, the Captain wins every round of the fight, and the audience collectively pelts poor Foster with more ping-pong balls. Still, when Mac performs one of Foster’s most beautiful and socially conscious songs, “Hard Times,” most of us vote in the composer’s favor.


I’m sitting by the runway, minding my own business, when I suddenly hear a booming voice above me saying, “You. Up on stage. Now.” It takes me a few seconds to realize the man is pointing at me. Before I know what’s going on, I’m up there, under the lights, in front of around 650 people, with the show’s makeup artist busily applying gobs of black makeup to my upper lip. A Dandy Minion plants a Union soldier’s cap on my head. And there are I am, in sweatpants, Chuck Taylors and a prize handlebar moustache, representing, Mac says, all the women who had to disguise themselves as men to join the army.

Selfie, shortly after being hoisted on stage and made up to look like a cross-dressed Union soldier.
Selfie, shortly after being hoisted on stage and made up to look like a cross-dressed Union soldier. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED)
There are lots of spunky war songs in this section, from both the Union and Confederate sides, including “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and that sickly-nostalgic idyll to the South, “Dixie,” which causes half the audience to hiss in disgust. I consider wiping the makeup off right away. But strangers keep telling me how great I look in a ‘stache, so I wear it for a few hours, with a mixed sense of pride and embarrassment.

1866–1876: Act IV

Somehow 650 people manage to turn St. Ann’s into a dining room complete with long tables and chairs and delicious food, all because Mac has decided it’s time for us all to have a “family dinner.” As we munch on delicacies culled from Catherine Beecher’s 1871 cookbook, Mac treats us to ditties of the era, like “Home on the Range” (done in a moody, Dave Brubeck jazz style), while a bunch of women circus performers make human pyramids and perform other tricks on stage — and even on the dining tables.  

Dinner, 19th century style.
Dinner, 19th century style. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED)


After our civilized family meal, things start to get really weird. We’re in the Gilded Age, and Mac decides to spend an hour performing an homage to Gilbert & Sullivan, who were as popular in the U.S. in the late 19th century as they were in their native England. Only he sets his abridged and thoroughly hilarious version ofThe Mikado, in which England’s famous operetta composers covertly satirized British politics, on Mars. Why? Because the appropriation of Japanese culture — or indeed any culture other than one’s own — is tricky territory today. (For more on this, take a look at Cy Musiker’s story about how the Bay Area’s Lamplighters’ theater company tried to solve the problem for its recent production of The Mikado).

Cast members play martians in Taylor Mac’s totally surreal but strangely effective version of ‘The Mikado’ set on Mars.
Cast members play martians in Taylor Mac’s totally surreal but strangely effective version of ‘The Mikado’ set on Mars.(Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED)
Mac’s martian Mikado is full of amazing glow-in-the-dark costumes and makeup, a spaceship, and reggae-style production numbers. Also, Mac and company sound like Teletubbies. I’ve never heard “Three Little Maids from School are We” and “Willow, Tit Willow” processed through Autotune before. It kinda works.


This section deals with the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889. I watch it all unfold from the safe distance of the upstairs balcony. It’s a relief to take a break from the shop floor, frankly. From my safe haven, I watch as the Dandy Minions release a cloud of colorful, helium-filled balloons into the space. Mac instructs the audience to make a run for the balloons, grab them, and then use them to stake out their turf. There aren’t enough balloons to go around, so those left without have to negotiate with the new “landowners” for space in their domain.

The Oklahoma Land Rush scene, observed from a balcony at a safe distance from the scramble.
The Oklahoma Land Rush scene, observed from a balcony at a safe distance from the scramble. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED)
Some of the musical selections in this decade are instrumentals, including Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” to which one of the Dandy Minions performs a striptease. Only he’s already completely starkers to begin with; the garments he removes are invisible. The connection between the privatization of land and this case of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” isn’t lost on me, even though I’ve been in the theater for around 12 hours at this point and am starting to feel it.

1896–1906: Act V

It’s midnight, or thereabouts. We’ve officially reached the halfway point and are entering unchartered territory for cast and crew; the longest performance of the show they’ve given to date is 12 hours (at Vassar College, in the summer). I return downstairs, to the sound of energetic Eastern European music from the band. Mac is wearing his most beautiful dress yet, a figure-hugging, Gustav Klimt-inspired creation of black and gold. It’s festooned with Stars of David and other Jewish symbology.
We’re exploring what it means to be a newly arrived immigrant to these shores. Over the next hour, we flop about on mattresses and think about what it’s like to have sex in a tenement within earshot of dozens of family members, while Mac performs tuneful renditions of popular songs by New York Jews of the time, like Irving Berlin’s ironical “All Alone.”

As the night wears on, musical director Matt Ray dons a beanie to keep himself warm.
As the night wears on, musical director Matt Ray dons a beanie to keep himself warm. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED)


Now we’re in the trenches. Mac, who is wearing a headdress with a gas mask incorporated in its design, invites all the men in the house aged 14 to 40 up on stage, to represent the demographic of soldiers who fought in the Great War. There are a lot of bodies up there. Mac gives several female audience members bandages and they go around wrapping the men up as if treating their wounds.
Mac’s songs about life during wartime include a terrific feminist take on “Keep the Home Fires Burning.” I am trying to get comfy on the mattress I’m sharing with several people and am finding it hard to concentrate. Even Mac is starting to show tiny signs of wear and tear. For the first time in the show, the performer has a memory lapse and asks his musical director for a cue.


In this section about the Roaring Twenties, Mac, ever the upender, chooses to view the hedonistic excesses of the era not as victorious jollity in the wake of wartime deprivations, but rather as post-war trauma.

A surreal dance-off between a group of ukulele-strumming Tiny Tims and a bunch of tap-dancers dressed in robes in a fanciful homage to James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’.
A surreal dance-off between a group of ukulele-strumming Tiny Tims and a bunch of tap-dancers dressed in robes in a fanciful homage to James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses.’ (Photo: Chloe Veltman)
Even though the hour is a loopy cocktail of balloons, good-time numbers like “Happy Days Are Here Again,” a conga line, and a surreal dance-off between a group of ukulele-strumming Tiny Tims and a bunch of tap-dancers dressed in Grecian robes in a fanciful homage to James Joyce’s Ulysses, Mac keeps reminding us that 16.5 million people died in the war.

1926–1936: Act VI

The act begins with a doctor joining the performer on stage to give him a vitamin B shot in his behind to help keep his energy levels up. That’s surely got to be a first for a public performance.
Now we’re in the Depression Era. Americans across the land suffered. But musically, those times were certainly inspiring. In a tight black velvet romper, blue silk cape and sparkling bathing cap à la Esther Williams, Mac feeds our souls with “Minnie the Moocher,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got That Swing)” and other hits.

Dandy Minions prepare to dole out soup to the tired, poor, huddled masses.
Dandy Minions prepare to dole out soup to the tired, poor, huddled masses. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED)
He also feeds our bodies: The Dandy Minions emerge with huge vats of delicious split pea soup and bread rolls. We get into snaking soup lines and gratefully accept this well-past-midnight snack.


At some point during this act — I’m a little hazy on which decade exactly it happens, but it’s the conclusion of a monologue about Mac’s dumpster diving days — the performer transforms himself into a walking chocolate-vanilla ice-cream cone with sprinkles. A cherry-topped headdress provides the finishing touch. Only it isn’t a cherry at all, but a glittery red human skull. Nice touch.
I’m a bit lost though. “What decade are we in?” I ask a couple of couple of fellow audience members. No one seems to know. “It’s at that time when it all slips away,” I hear Mac say from the stage.
I listen to “Tea for Two” while sprawled out on a mattress with my eyes shut. I open my eyes to the sight of a couple of massive inflatable fish being gently tossed up and down in the air around the space and a scary narrative about the easy-listening favorite “By the Sleepy Lagoon” concerning the corpse of a dead baby. By the time Mac gets to a monologue about World War II Japanese internment camps and sings the song “Don’t Fence Me In,” I’m wide awake.


This decade is all about the white flight to the suburbs and the threat of the atomic bomb. Mac wrenches the mattresses away from us, and we bring back the chairs. Then he orders all the white people sitting in the center of the room to find a seat — or, if there are no seats left, someone’s lap — to the sides of the room. That’s when I realize that the audience, though diverse in terms of sexuality, gender and age, isn’t so diverse from a racial perspective.

Taylor Mac as a Stepford-Wife-on-crack.
Taylor Mac in 1950s-inspired garb. (Photo: Teddy Wolff)
Mac now resembles a Stepford-Wife-on-acid, with a wig made out of cardboard 3D glasses and a shawl in the shape of a white picket fence. The songs are starting to become more recognizable to 21st century ears, ranging from Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” to The Platters’ “Only You.”
I’m really tired. Wondering: can I get a vitamin B shot too?

1956–1966: Act VII

Only five more to go! Powerful guest singers from Detroit, Stephanie Christi’an and Thornetta Davis, join Mac for this section about the Civil Rights era and the March on Washington. Rambunctious performances of Nina Simone songs keep me going. When they get to “Mississippi Goddam,” I start to cry. Someone hands me a boxed breakfast. I gratefully dig in, with salty tears pelting my yogurt.


An hour devoted to the disco era and the rise of gay activism, kicked off by an energetic rendition of Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up.” Then Mac brings on an entire marching band from Brooklyn comprised entirely of young black men. The performer now has an enormous peace sign on his back and an oversized, tie-dye-effect macramé “bib” on his front.

There’s no mistaking we’re in the 1970s with this getup.
There’s no mistaking we’re in the 1970s with this getup. (Photo: Teddy Wolff)
As the company stage manager dances in roller skates and a purple wig to David Bowie’s “Oh You Pretty Things,” there can be no doubt that we’re in the 1970s. We cycle through hits by Elton John, The Rolling Stones and The Clash. And I realize two things: one, just how much American pop music is actually British; and two, that we haven’t heard a squeak about The Beatles.
In a sly act of genius, Mac re-appropriates the homophobic Ted Nugent hit “Snakeskin Cowboys” as a gay prom song. Mac instructs us to find a partner of the same gender, and I find myself slow-dancing with New York Times arts reporter, Jennifer Schuessler.


This one’s all about a backroom sex party. It involves “Purple Rain” (which Mac, in a momentary but totally forgivable memory lapse, almost forgets to sing) among other great let’s-get-it-on tracks.
At some point I nod off for five minutes and wake to find rose petals strewn over the floor. My prom date tells me someone tried to give me petals to throw, but I was unresponsive. Am glad to be wide awake again for Mac’s mesmerizing rendition of Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman,” for which the entire audience provides the backing track by chanting a staccato “ha ha ha ha” for the duration of the song.

Taylor Mac in his goth pop outfit, festooned with cassette tapes. Guitarist Viva DeConcini looks on.
Taylor Mac in his goth pop outfit, festooned with cassette tapes. Guitarist Viva DeConcini looks on. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED)

1986–1996: Act VIII

Can’t believe we’ve come this far. My notes are almost illegible. In fact, my notebook is falling apart. I keep the pages together with an elastic band I find on the floor.
We’re diving into the AIDS crisis. Mac is wearing a dress covered in cassette tapes. The music is a mad mixtape of goth-pop hits like “Blood Makes Noise” and “Addicted to Love,” with tracks like Whitney’s Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” mixed in to throw us off, I guess.


This decade, devoted to radical lesbian songs, is a bit of a struggle for me. I’m exhausted. And I’m just not all that into “The Pussy Manifesto” and K.D. Lang. That said, I appreciate Mac turning this decade into a “lesbian tailgate party” complete with vagina decorations, mimosas, hot dogs cooked up on a George Foreman grill, lawn chairs, and several happy-looking dykes. I eat two bags of popcorn in solidarity.

The lesbian tailgating party in the final act of ‘A 24 Decade History of Popular Music’.
The lesbian tailgate party in the final act of ‘A 24 Decade History of Popular Music.’ (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED)


I forgot to mention that Mac has been steadily hemorrhaging musicians for 23 hours, at a rate of around one an hour. Now there’s no one on stage but him. Showing clear signs of exhaustion, with a hoarse voice and almost slurred speech, Mac performs the last part of his musical journey solo, accompanying himself at different times on the piano, banjo, and ukulele.
The songs are alternately angry and funny, and consistently moving. Mac composed them all himself. One track is dedicated to the recent bloodbath at the gay club in Orlando; another, to the life of a “Rank and File Queer.”
The 24-hour act of heroism ends quietly. Then the room erupts.
“Perfection is for assholes,” Mac told me in the run-up to the show. That’s certainly a useful mantra to live by when you’ve got 240 years of pop music history to pull off. But it’s also not a bad way to approach life in general.
What Taylor Mac teaches us above all else with his exhausting, brilliant marathon of history and song is how a total breakdown can bring people together. “I’m going to be falling apart and the audience is going to be falling apart,” Mac said in aninterview with Rachael Myrow on KQED Forum last January, expressing what he hoped would be the outcome of this weekend’s theatrical-anthropological experiment. “But as a result, we’re going to be able to create bonds and build connection.”
He wasn’t wrong.

After performing for 24 hours straight, the cast and crew of ‘A 24 Decade History of Popular Music’ take a bow.
After performing for 24 hours straight, the cast and crew of ‘A 24 Decade History of Popular Music’ take a bow. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED)