Taylor Mac: 1910s
UNC Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill
Wednesday, Oct. 1 2014

I hadn’t expected the first time I heard the folk standard “Man of Constant Sorrow” during IBMA week would be from the mouth of a drag performer. But it wasn’t a part of those formal festivities in Raleigh. Rather, this rendition was the rousing second-to-last song performed by gender-bending critical darling Taylor Mac as a part of the 1910s section of the performer’s ambitious 24-decade, 24-hour music project premiering in New York in 2016.

1910s was commissioned by Carolina Performing Arts and tied in with its World War I Centenary programming, but it had almost none of the grim reverence that is the hallmark of war retrospectives. Instead, Mac—whose preferred gender pronoun is “judy”—and company delivered a musical and theatrical program that ran from hilarious to pensive.

Mac began spectacularly, strutting out in gold heels, a baffling contraption of a dress and a massive deep magenta muff. An enormous hat festooned with feathers and fabric fortune cookies teetered precariously on Mac’s head. Mac explained the journey we’d be on: the band would play popular songs around the themes of pre-war, mid-war and post-war life. The pre-war section meant Memorial Hall (which was disappointingly not packed) rang with peals of laughter and joy at the outlandish performance.

Audience participation in the show began almost immediately when Mac called up some members to act as props during a love song. Mac later said about audience participation, “When I ask you to participate, it’s because I want you to feel uncomfortable.” This discomfort was amplified for one male audience member, who was brought onstage and serenaded by Mac and the UNC Clef Hangers with “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” What is often hokey forced participation was ultimately silly and fun.

But the bubbly, giggly glee of the first act quickly sobered as Mac dove into life during the war. Male audience members between ages 14-40 were brought to the orchestra pit area in front of the stage to pretend it was a trench, a nod to the ages of men who actually were in the trenches during the war. Mac’s songs moved from rollicking romantic tunes to dark, poignant ones. “K-K-K-Katy” was particularly striking, as was Mac’s version of “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” and Irving Berlin’s “When I Lost You.”

Though this was the world premiere of 1910s, the performance roared through its two hours with few hiccups. There was a section of the show honoring bull dykes that felt like a non sequitur, but it was entertaining all the same. Mac’s improvisation and early audience antagonizing actually seemed to put the audience at ease. Performance art can be a tough pill to swallow, but 1910s was nothing short of a delight.