Philly-area performers chime in on ’24 Decade History’ of American resistance

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Taylor Mac performs

Taylor Mac performs "A 24-Decade History of Popular Music" at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn. (Teddy Wolff)

Taylor Mac believes in endurance — both for himself and his audiences. He spent years developing “A 24 Decade History of Popular Music,” representing social resistance in America, one decade an hour for 24 hours.

He did the whole thing as one, marathon drag performance at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse in 2016.

Since then, he has taken it on the road — earning a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant along the way – packaging it as four 6-hour shows. In Philadelphia, Mac is cranking up the workout as two 12-hour stints, a week apart.

“One of your jobs as a theater artist is to break people’s defenses down,” he said, during a rehearsal break. He wants to create a radical theater that fundamentally changes how people perceive themselves and the rest of the world.

Mac says a typical 90-minute play cannot break down an audience enough. It takes a long time for an audience to become a community.

“I went to the first AIDS Walk when I was 14. I’d never seen a homosexual before,” recalled Mac. “The first time I saw an out homosexual, I saw thousands of them. They were building themselves because of this epidemic.

“That stayed with me. I wanted to make a show that is a metaphorical representation. We’re building ourselves over and over again, because of difficult circumstances, because we are being torn apart,” he said.

When Mac comes to town, he incorporates local performers. Much of his backup band consists of Philly pickup players, and he brings on many special guests, including — this week — a 40-member drill squad from Camden called the Sophisticated Sisters.

Director Tawanda Jones founded the Sophisticated Sisters 32 years ago as step troupe that proactively gets involved in its dancers lives, helping them with school and social challenges.

She jumped at the chance to be in Taylor Mac’s show.

“We are from Camden … It’s not secret what is happening in our city with poverty and social woes,” she said. “We want to protect our children from that.”

The show will also feature a immigrant rights activist Yared Portillo. She plays a tiny guitar — a jarana — similar to a ukulele but with eight strings. It’s particular to a folk music native to the Mexican region of Veracruz, called son jarocho.

“One powerful thing about this music in the U.S., it’s been able to focus on the immigrant experience,” said Portillo. “Because the verses are improvised, it’s an instrument that can be used to talk about these ideas. It’s an instrument of resistance and political activism.”

When Portillo was approached to play a small part in the massive theatrical project, she was hesitant. For one thing, she had never played in a theater before. Son jarocho music is designed to be played in a fandango — a kind of informal music party among friends — not performed onstage for an audience.

“It would be a Saturday night, someone is graduating or having a birthday, something is happening,” Portillo explained “There’s a raised wooden floor for people to tap dance, we make a bunch of food, and we start playing and singing.”

Portillo did not want to be just a Latina accent to Taylor Mac’s grandiose spectacle. After talking with him over the phone, she decided they both share a goal of building community.

“A lot of what he’s doing has a lot do with the fandango,” she said. “It can last 12 hours. It’s similar to what he’s doing here. He’s going and going, pushing people. It’s engaging the audience in ways the fandango does.”

Like the fandango, there is food. Taylor Mac has audience comfort in mind during “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music,” offering moments to get up, move around, talk to each other, and share a meal.

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