The Influence

Cabaret artist Mama Alto talks about the influence of Taylor Mac’s A 24 Decade History of Popular Music on her life and work. By Maddee Clark.

Mama Alto

Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music performed in New Jersey in 2018
Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music performed in New Jersey in 2018
Credit: Dave Kotinsky / Getty Images

Mama Alto is a jazz singer, cabaret artist and self-described gender-transcendent diva. She is the inaugural chief executive of Transgender Victoria and holds a range of community advocacy roles. She is also a writer and is currently exploring through hybrid memoir the cultural idea of the diva. In particular, she is looking at its association with feminine divinity, musical prowess and genius and how – thanks to misogyny, queerphobia and racism – the term has become twisted into a pejorative and cruel term. This year she was the recipient of the Australia Council Kirk Robson Award for outstanding leadership in community arts and cultural development.

The artwork she has chosen to discuss is Taylor Mac’s groundbreaking work of durational theatre, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music.

Tell me about your first encounters with this work.

I have been a cabaret performer for 11 years now. I already knew about Taylor Mac and judy’s work – Taylor Mac uses “judy” as a gender pronoun, partly to emasculate those who don’t believe in pronouns by forcing them to use one that’s so ostentatious. They note that one can’t say “judy” without accidentally becoming camp and ridiculous. Which I appreciate.

Cabaret seems to be an attractive form to the queer community.

Yes, partly because it’s in some ways limitless. It contains contradictions, messages. It is the sublime and the ridiculous at the same time. Cabaret at its best is a participatory format where the audience is made up of active observer/participants who leave changed by the experience, whether that means they’ve been affirmed or challenged or both.

So I was following the story of the 24 Decades online, which is an epic 24-hour-long durational history of 240 years of music and musical forms in the lands of the so-called “United” States. It tracks the history of music to explore what was going on socially during each decade, and in doing so it turns a mirror to society today.

This piece was developed at Joe’s Pub, which is a famous New York cabaret theatre. It was developed over many years in dribs and drabs, a bit at a time. People who I knew in New York and in the media were so excited when it was finally performed as a 24-hour work.

Then I was contacted by some producers here in Birraranga/Naarm who asked me whether I’d like to be part of a big project in the [Melbourne] arts festival in 2017. And I wondered, is this Taylor Mac’s 24 Decades? And it was. I, of course, said yes.

I was part of the work as a dandy minion, which is Taylor’s term for the ensemble in the show. Dandy minions are a chaotic bunch of activists and performers from whichever city or place the show tours to, and they are minions to the idea of dandyism – of inhabiting yourself and the world in ways that are heightened and ridiculous, but ultimately highlighting the hypocrisies and absurdities of the world around you in a very liberating and empowering way.

I also became a soloist, singing in the 1920s and 1930s segment of the show.

Was it staged as a 24-hour work?

The Melbourne performance was done over four separate evenings of six hours each. As a featured artist for the decades of the 1920s and ’30s, I was singing jazz songs and Tin Pan Alley standards. It was a very immersive performance at the Forum. There were more than a thousand people in the room.

It was glorious chaos: ping-pong balls flying through the air to symbolise the Civil War, people crowd-surfing to represent the funeral procession of Judy Garland, streamers, balloons, people being removed from their seats repeatedly to simulate the great migration to the north of liberated Black Americans and white flight to the suburbs – an incredible interactive show. And the dandy minions, we were the conduit between Taylor and the orchestra on stage, extending out into the audience.

As each decade progresses, one member of the orchestra leaves the stage. So by the time you get to the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, there’s not much of the orchestra left, just the musical director, the rhythm section, some piano, Taylor singing and the minions who, when the show reaches those decades, are symbolically farewelled and are lost from the world of the show. We were spiritually released from being the dandy minions and got to watch the rest of those final two or three decades, in recognition of not just a generation lost to HIV/AIDS but also to represent the betrayal of governments in that time in the States.

From that moment on I experienced the show as just audience member. So, three different experiences contributed to my understanding of the work.

What do you think about durational works of art and performance – is there value in putting the audience through these endurance tests?

They can be incredibly powerful if you have a good reason why. They can be totally unnecessary if they’re not done well – if they don’t have a meaning. The power that came from 24 Decades was in its proposal that there’s not one way to be in this world. I think it needed to be durational experience to let that happen. You wanted people to feel and experience that, not to articulate it in words.

It doesn’t need to be a didactic set of answers and respectability politics served up on a platter, which is what we’re taught to do as artists in this country. You need to understand the communal experience. Something was unlocked in it and it came at a pivotal time amid an atmosphere of heavy collective trauma, with the rise of Trumpism and the marriage equality ballot in Australia.

It could be a healing experience to be given permission to be who you are for those magic 24 hours, even if then for your own safety you have to put it away when you leave – an all-too-common experience. For those aspects it was important for it to be durational.

How has this influenced your own understanding of performance and how queerness can be put into action in performance?

The best way to describe it is in that power of visibility and representation. You always remember the first time you see someone like you embracing and celebrating fully who they are. Being able to embody and encompass, and then give to the audience, the idea that we as humans contain multiplicities and you as a performer can shine a light into that prism – messy, complicated, even ugly – that was the key to it, that’s why it’s an influence on me.

It reaffirmed my idea that queer is a verb as well as a noun. It’s a neat identity category and point of solidarity that we rally around. What does that mean for us and our community, our society? What world can we create with that possibility? Within the work is a kind of artistic freedom, an unfurling, an unravelling of questions about the world and society and history and who we are. It acts as a reminder that questioning can be the artwork.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 3, 2021 as "Mama Alto".

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