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At Raising Voices fest, Taylor Mac will dig into ‘24-Decade History of Popular Music’

Taylor Mac performs “24-Decade History of Popular Music” at St. Ann’s Warehouse in New York in 2016.Sara Krulwich/New York Times/file

Taylor Mac is quick to say “I’m not a historian.”

That despite the enthralling and entertaining “24-Decade History of Popular Music,” a 24-hour-long “performance art concert” Mac performed in 2016 that was captured in a 110-minute HBO documentary.

“I want to keep people engaged in history,” Mac says, “to feel the weight of it on our backs and figure out what to do with it.”

Mac and the documentary are perfect fits for “Raising Voices: A Celebration of Music, Art, and the Power of Protest,” a sweeping two-day festival Saturday and Sunday that uses the 250th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party as its motivation, but then ripples out in surprising ways with nearly two dozen theater, poetry, music, and performance artists at venues across Boston. Revolutionary Spaces, the organization that manages and activates both the Old State House and the Old South Meeting House, aims to illuminate history while encouraging individuals to understand their role in self-governing, free speech, and civic engagement.

“24-Decade History of Popular Music” will be screened at the Old South Meeting House Saturday at 7:30 p.m., followed by a talkback with Mac.


“The questions people ask reflect their curiosity about the show, and I will try to illuminate the process,” Mac says.

Of course, this is Taylor Mac, the brilliant mind behind “The Lily’s Revenge,” “Hir,” and “Gary,” to name just a few productions that reject traditional notions of sexuality norms and identities for more fluid and inclusive perspectives.

The impetus for “24-Decade” was the way history is told in ways that exclude so many people. For Mac, a queer artist (who uses the pronoun “judy”), the AIDS crisis was the inspiration, but research revealed so many horrific incidents often oddly captured in song, including the true story behind “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and a shockingly racist abolitionist song.


Choosing so many songs, Mac says, was not as hard as you might think. “It was kind of like creating 24 jukebox musicals. Each decade focused on a particular historic theme, and the songs that were popular during those decades — the ones that survived at least — often had a very narrow focus.”

In addition to “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and songs we might not have been familiar with, Mac recast some more familiar pop songs with the help of longtime music director Matt Ray, including “Down by the Riverside,” “Gloria,” “Born to Run,” “Heroes,” and so many more, making them moving and meaningful with a new emphasis. Watching the audience in the film respond to a song like “Gloria” shows a group of strangers who are somehow bonding as a community.

The costumes and artistry by designer Machine Dazzle, a longtime Mac collaborator, add volumes to the storytelling while providing eye-popping color to Mac’s ever-evolving personas.

While the very nature of a 24-hour show can seem unwieldy — Mac also performed four six-hour shows in San Francisco and other cities in addition to the 24-hour marathon in New York — the performance never lets go of the core theme: the tragic cost of the AIDS epidemic. The show opens with 24 musicians on stage, and each hour, one drops out, until in the final hour, Mac is alone.

Mac’s newest work, “Bark of Millions,” also harkens back to history, this time to the Egyptian sun god Ra, who descended into the underworld in his boat or “bark” to battle chaos each night, and then returned every morning to travel across the sky in triumph.


“I was fascinated to learn that Ra, one of the first recorded gods, was gender-queer,” Mac says, “suggesting that gender-queer is closer to the core of who we are rather than farther away. We’ve been taught that queerness was somehow separate, and wrong, but history doesn’t support that.”

“Bark of Millions” consists of 55 original songs Mac wrote with Ray, and a cast of 21, who harmonize on ensemble numbers. It will premiere at the Sydney Opera House Oct. 20, with additional performances planned in early 2024 in New York and Berkeley, Calif., and later a tour.

“We are unraveling oppression through song,” Mac says. “Singing together, and [with] theater, can do that. We can get away from homogeneity and be who we are.”


Sept. 23-24. Downtown Boston, various venues. Free, registration suggested.


At Old South Meeting House, 310 Washington St. Sept. 23 at 7:30 pm, followed by a talkback with Taylor Mac. Tickets: $10-$35,

Terry Byrne can be reached at