The Wildest Dreamers
- Taylor Mac believes that theater is sacred. But that doesn’t mean it must be sacrosanct.
- Tori Marchiony explores the enchanted worlds of young adult author Holly Black.
- Vieux Farka Touré was drawn to music because of his father, but pursued it in spite of him.
- Stage & Screen
Welcome to Articulate, the show that explores how really creative people understand the world.
On this episode of Articulate, Taylor Mac believes that theater is sacred, but that doesn’t mean it’s sacrosanct.
Taylor Mac: I love a flaw. I love a little danger. I love something bad that happens. I don’t believe in safe space.
Holly Black invites readers into her magical worlds, and as Tori Marchiony found out, they never want to leave.
Holly Black: People as readers get to try out things through books. They get to try on being different people, try on being somebody who maybe doesn’t always do the right thing.
And Vieux Farka Touré was drawn to music because of his father, but pursued it in spite of him.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
In the early hours of a January morning in 2013, the award-winning playwright, classically trained actor, and soon to be MacArthur Fellow, Taylor Mac was awake in Brooklyn writing a manifesto on the state of contemporary theater. More than five years later, the words still resonate.
Taylor Mac: I believe that truth, in the theater, is often confused with a clearing away of theatricality. I believe the clearing away of theatricality is as much of a glorious lie as the theatrical. I believe, as a theater artist, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. I’m a reminder. I’m not a teacher. I’m just trying to remind you of the things you’ve dismissed, forgotten, or buried.
In the fall of 2016, Taylor Mac premiered a wildly ambitious 24-hour-long production six years in the making. Though on the face of it, the 24-Decade History of Popular Music might suggest a retelling of American history through song. In reality, it’s a document of how communities rebuild after being torn apart. The Trail of Tears, the Civil War, the AIDS crisis, and many other examples are explored, says Mac, from a distinct perspective.
Mac: Everything I make is queer because I’m a big old queer. The history that is told is not so much about queer history, but you experience history from the lens of a queer, which is maybe the first time for some people, because usually history is experienced from a more kind of status quo presentation.
The Lord hath promised good to me
His word my hope secures
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures
Identity politics are always inherently present in Mac’s endeavors, but they’re never the whole point of any project. Taylor Mac is an innovator, yet insists that many of his performance techniques are actually grounded in antiquity.
Mac: I feel like this work is very traditional in the sense that it’s more like the very early theater. It was hybrid in the sense that there was storytelling going on, there’s singing, there’s dancing. It’s a lot of things all squished together, and that is very Egyptian, but that’s also very Greek, and it’s even Elizabethan. So it’s until when we get into the 19th and 20th century that things started to get very categorized in the theater world, and so I feel very traditional, rather than that I’m inventing my own genre. But I will say that not many people in the theater world are doing what we’re doing.
So that you might smile and answer
Mac estimates that the 24-Decade show is about 20 percent improvised every time. As a result, audience participation is essential.
(Taylor Mac speaking on stage)
“Does anybody have a good puke story? Is there anybody who has a really good puke story? Raise your hand if you do, raise it.”
Mac: The goal is to try to get the audience to rebel against an obstinate sense of self. So they come into the theater thinking I’m this kind of person. This is what I like. This is what I do and this is what I believe. And our job is to kind of chisel away at that and give them other options and see how they might be a little bit more expansive than they think they are.
AJC: And what about this idea of the echo chamber. I just wonder if kind of people who are going to show up at a Taylor Mac show are the kind of people who are going to show up at a Taylor Mac show.
Mac: I would not say that people know what they’re getting into. I’m not the kind of person that I’m famous enough that people know who I am when I come to their town in Iowa. So a few people will know, people that are aware of theater and stuff, but most people that are coming to the theater are just coming because it’s what’s on that night, and so we do have conservative people that come. I mean, we just finished touring the red states. Everyone says you’re preaching to the converted and all the time, I think, are you on tour with me? Have you had the people stand up and scream at me from the audience? Have people throw things and people stand up and leave because they’re offended. It always happens in the first five minutes. They’re usually offended by the drag and by one thing that I say and then that gives them the reason to not have to engage in the experience, but a vast majority of the people hang out, and if you hang out for more than a half an hour, you want to stay until the end of 12 hours.
(“Promised Land” by Chuck Berry, 1964)
Tell the folks back home
It’s the promised land calling
And the poor boy is on the line
Though performed straight through just once, Mac’s 24-hour show is typically divided into three or four hour chunks. But in Philadelphia in the summer of 2018, it was presented in two 12-hour displays of theatrical endurance. It was clear going in that seeking perfection would be a fool’s errand. Mac was undaunted.
Mac: If I have to sacrifice my humanity in order to touch the hem of God, I’m not interested. So I’m going to keep that humanity, that vulnerability, the flaw, the imperfection, and I’m going to use that as a way to reach the people, and that is a lot of what we’re doing with 24-Decade with the popular songs, is we take these songs that are flawed, that their goal was to reach people, though, to rally people to a cause, to get them all to celebrate together or to mourn together, and we use them and we use the imperfection that’s in them and our imperfection in performing, especially durational because my body breaks down, my voice breaks down. We miss a note here. I’ll forget a lyric here. We use all of those things as the show progresses to actually rally the audience towards something, and to take the history that’s on our backs and to figure out what we’re going to do with it in this moment. I just love a flaw. I love a little danger. I love something bad that happens. I don’t believe in safe space. Our shows are not safe space. People always define them as safe space. It was such a safe space. We all felt so safe. I’m like, no. It’s not safe space. Somebody’s going to have an idea that is dangerous to you or that is offensive or that hurts you. Somebody unintentionally is going to hurt you. Somebody intentionally is going to hurt you. So, I don’t feel like to define spaces as this is where we go to retreat and to heal ourselves. I’m trying to create something different.
(“Move On Up”)
Move on up
Move on up
Move on up
Mac: I guess the thing that drag has really taught me is that it’s all pretend. You’re wearing drag, I’m wearing drag right now. It’s the story you want to tell the world. So if you walked out naked, you’re still wearing drag, because you want to tell the world that you’re naked, right? In that, there’s an element of pretend because there’s a decision that’s been made. I don’t think that a stockbroker sitting in the room and talking, talking, talking, talking, and they kind of do this with their faces and their bodies, and the ‘muh, muh, muh, muh, muh,’ is that not pretend? That’s pretend. They weren’t born doing that as babies, like you know what I mean? But people will say, well, that’s real life. And I go, no, they just don’t understand that their boardroom is a stage. Or they do understand it, but they’re trying to fool you. The difference is I’m honest about it.
Holly Black grew up in her great grandmother’s Victorian house, a home not so different from the one she now shares with her high school sweetheart and their son in Western Massachusetts. Among dark forests and creaky staircases, ghosts and fairies always seemed plausible. The supernatural felt close. But though she grew up believing firmly in all kinds of magic, Black didn’t have much in the way of self-belief when it came to her most deeply held ambition.
Holly Black: I always wanted to be a writer. You know, people say, “If you believe in yourself, “then you can make it.” But I was like, but I don’t. Why would it be me? It seems so unlikely. I know it’s meant to be inspiring, that if you believe in yourself, you can do it, but for me, I thought, oh no, that’s terrible news. Like, I’m disqualified.
She wasn’t disqualified. Today Black is one of the best-loved names in young adult fantasy and has published more than 60 books since her 2002 debut. That first book, Tithe, took a full six years to produce, and in that time, her focused narrowed from a young girl’s dreams to the reality of the blank page.
Black: Just moving forward without really knowing, without believing, without thinking that anything had to come of it, by the time that I actually finished a book, I, at that point, was less afraid that no one would ever publish it than I was that I was never going to finish it. My fears had shifted, but I remember when I sold Tithe, I was happy for maybe like three months. I mean, I was happy all the time. Someone rear-ended my car and I was like, ‘Hey!’ Like, I was super happy. And I think I somehow messed up my brain chemicals because that summer after I really had the only depression I have ever gotten into and I became certain that my death was imminent, and I began looking up articles online about quasi-medical journals about the afterlife, because, of course, my death being imminent. I really needed to know what was going to happen next and later, what I found out is that this is actually a common experience of lottery winners and people who have this great, good thing happen, that it really does actually change the way that you think. I think I had told my brain for so long that the end goal of life was to sell a book, that my brain was like, well, there’s nothing left for you and let’s pack it in. Like, you’re done. So, I think everything beyond selling that first book is in a state that I never thought about. I never thought about what happened afterward. That thing was so impossible that it was the goal of everything.
Things eventually evened out for Black, who has guarded her own creative autonomy over the last two decades by writing relatively short series of no more than five books each, enough for fans to lose themselves in a particular world, but not long enough to let a single franchise define her. Several of Black’s stories have been optioned for film, but to date, only The Spiderwick Chronicles have made it to the big screen. Though she borrows heavily from the folklore she fell in love with as a child, Black is ultimately the lone architect of each parallel universe. Her tales are wide-ranging and have featured everything from vampire reality TV shows to haunted dolls. But, Black says, all her magical realms are united by a common essence, which is embodied by something called ‘faerie fruit.’
Black: You know, ‘faerie fruit’ is so delectable that all other food is ashes in their mouth. You will never eat and be satisfied again. In that kind of ruinous beauty, to me, is such a huge component of faerie. I like the idea that sort of out of the corner of your eye, around the corner, there is this magical world, sort of juxtaposed with ours, and so I come back to that a lot. I think the thematic business and the feeling business is a lot of what I do, but when you’re actually creating a magic system from the whole cloth, you want then to think about what restrictions it has, because the more restrictions you have, the more fun it actually is to play with. Nothing is as dull as an overpowered magic system. And then you want to think, am I saying the thing I want to say about the world? If you, for instance, create a magic system where men and women have different kinds of magic, then you’re saying something about the essential nature of men and women, and is that the thing that you actually agree with? Is that the thing that you really want to say? And so magic is always also metaphor, and then I think you take that magic system and you say, okay, how would people really use this? And how would that play out? And how would that change the way that our world works?
In Black’s most recent series, The Folk of the Air, teenaged protagonist Jude is defined by the near-constant danger she faces as an adopted citizen in the magical land of Faerie.
(Excerpt from The Cruel Prince)
“No matter how careful I am, eventually I’ll make another misstep. I am weak. I am fragile. I am mortal. I hate that most of all. Even if by some miracle, I could be better than them, I will never be one of them.”
Black doesn’t try to protect her young readers from heavy subjects, like mortality, rage, and even lust. Indeed, she believes that all good literature, for any age group, should delight in tough questions.
Black: What would we do for power? How far would we go? How far is too far? What does it mean if you are raised with a particular moral code that is left of center of a mainstream moral code, do you adopt it? What does it mean to take that on? And I think that asking questions is the most important thing we can do with books because people, as readers, get to try out things through books. They get to try on being different people, try on being somebody who maybe doesn’t always do the right thing. I have lied and I have betrayed and I have triumphed. If only there was someone to congratulate me.
The second and third books in Holly Black’s, The Folk of the Air series are due out in 2019 and 2020 respectively. Beyond that, just one thing is truly certain. The author will continue to blur the lines between our realm and mysterious others with her words and her ears.
Black: I have pointed ears and I’m super excited about them. They’re a year old.
AJC: They look great.
Black: Thank you very much. I sort of discovered that people were doing that a few years back and I thought, okay, great for them. I had no particular thought that I could do it and then I had a costumed New Year’s party and it was fairy tale themed and many people wore pointy ears and I thought, ‘God, everyone looks better in pointy ears.’ I think probably it’s the one thing where I really feel like it makes me feel more fantastical. People perhaps might wonder, well, what happens when you get old. First of all, I’m not sure why we’re really interested in preserving the beauty of the old, but also, I just really love the idea of like someday being in a home and somebody being like, ‘I’m gonna take a tray down to that old elf.’ Think how happy that person would be.
Vieux Farka Touré is one of Mali’s most widely acclaimed musicians. He’s been called, among other things, the Hendrix of the Sahara.
Vieux Farka Touré: I am a musician, so I like to bring the story. My job I think it’s, educate the people about what’s happened, in the north Mali.
In recent years, Farka Touré’s native Mali has had its share of troubles, including civil war, extreme poverty, and acts of terror, but through it all, the country’s music remains persistently joyful. At the heart of the Malian music tradition are troubadours, called ‘Griot,’ who served as the keepers of communal knowledge for hundreds of years.
Farka Touré: Griot have the memory, the memory for all the tradition from Mali. They know, if I would like to know where the Touré come from, you have to go to the Griot. They are going to tell us everything about the Touré, where they come from, who are the first guys coming here, who are the second Touré, what are they doing. They have everything.
The Griot tradition remains highly influential in the modern era, thanks in part to increased support for the arts that began in the 1960s. When Mali gained independence from France, the new government appreciated music’s ability to dispense information to its citizens.
Farka Touré: At this time, you don’t have TV. At this time, you don’t have radio station, but the people still listen to music. It’s propaganda, education, everything. It’s like the musicians are the newspaper, or television for the government.
With proper financial support, scores of musicians wrote songs on traditional and imported instruments. Before long, Malian musicians were popping up on the global stage, including the singer Fanta Damba, the famed kora player Toumani Diabate, and the Guinea-born, Mali-raised singer Mory Kanté, whose song, “Yeke Yeke” was a big pop hit in Europe, even reaching number one in the Netherlands and Spain. But arguably, the most celebrated was Ali Farka Touré, a singer and guitarist whose blues-tinged songs transcended national, linguistic, and genre boundaries. In awe of his father, Vieux Farka Touré always wanted to become a musician himself, but his dad, who’d been cheated out of earnings early in his career, discouraged his son. Thankfully, before his death in March 2006, Farka Touré, Sr., came around, agreeing to record tracks for his son’s debut album, but it wasn’t until much later that Vieux Farka Touré found out just how proud of him his father had truly been.
Farka Touré: He died just before the CD came out.
AJC: But he heard them?
Farka Touré: Yeah. When the CDs, when we do the rough mix for him, my uncle told me every night he usually listened to the CDs. But in the morning, he knows I’m going to come down, he took the CDs and put them somewhere. All the time, all the time they’d say, ‘You know your father loves your music, he loves what you do, you know, it’s good.’ Every night when everybody is sleeping, he put on the CD.
AJC: He was never going to tell you that.
Farka Touré: Yeah, he’s never going to tell me.
AJC: Old school father.
Farka Touré: Yeah, but he told my uncle, he said, ‘Okay, I hope and I’m sure this guy’s going to be a good musician one day.’
Since that self-titled debut, Vieux Farka Touré has recorded eight more albums, including two collaborations with the Israeli musician, Idan Raichel. And though not a griot himself, he does touch on social issues in his songs. “Ba Kaitere” singles out fair-weather friends.
(“Ba Kaitere” 2017)
Farka Touré: You know in this life many people think you have to have money to be a friend. When you have money, you have a lot of friends, but when the money’s done, everybody’s gone. Your friend is your friend. With money, without money, without anything, that love is love.
Some songs, though, are more personal. “Missing” is about his elder sister, Sumbu Touré, who died in 2011. And then there’s “Ali.”
Farka Touré: “Ali” is actually a song I play especially for my dad. He’s the most good guy we see in the world. Nobody can say, ‘Ali’s no good.’ Everywhere I go in the world they say, ‘your dad is a perfect guy.’ So, it’s good to tell that, to say, ‘thank you for everything you do for the world, for Mali, for the family, for your friends.’ Because Ali’s not used for his family, Ali’s for everybody.
AJC: Do you feel pressure being his son?
Farka Touré: It’s difficult, it’s very difficult, but you know, we just have to be like this, you say, ‘Okay, I’m going to try to be how he was,’ I’m not going to be like this, but you should try.