“Have you seen this before?” I heard an audience member ask his friend just before Holiday Sauce, Taylor Mac’s sold-out alt-holiday extravaganza at The Kennedy Center. “Prepare yourself for lots of rainbows!”
To Taylor Mac’s ardent fan base, the outrageously gifted queer performer and MacArthur “genius” who conceived, wrote, directed, and stars in Holiday Sauce needs no introduction. Last season the drag artist’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music—originally 24 hours long trimmed to two and a half—turned the packed Eisenhower Theater into a non-heteronormative jubilee
On this one-night-only in December, the Opera House stage was bedecked with so much tinsel floor-to-ceiling it felt like a temple to gaud. And indeed throughout all the fabulosity that was to follow, there would run a sly rejoinder to religiosity. “There’s not a war on Christmas,” Taylor declared at one point. “There’s a war on patriarchy as spirituality.” At that the crowd went wild.
Taylor’s gender pronoun is judy, not as an homage to Garland as one might suppose, but in honor of the homosexual men who before Stonewall referred to one another as “Judy” or “Mary” to keep their sexuality surreptitious. As judy explained in an interview with Metro Weekly, the nonbinary pronoun they is perfectly fine for those who want it—but “I don’t think it’s creative enough.”
In Taylor’s art, the aesthetic is the activism:
I’ve been trying to make art that doesn’t just comment on the world, or doesn’t just wish for the world to be different, but actually manifests the world that you want to live in through the work.
So it was that a glimpse at the world judy wants to live in came alive in glitz. Centerstage hung a white wreath looking like a giant Life Saver through which tinsel disgorged. A low sound rumbled from an enormous caldron upstage simmering over flickering flames. From inside this kettle arose Taylor looking like a glam Medusa in red and green and glimmer. (Longtime collaborator Machine Dazzle designed the set and judy’s over-the-top costumes. “Taylor lets me do whatever I want,” he told On Tap.)
We were in for a “radical realness fairy sacrifice celebration,” judy told us. The idea was to put all kinds of “shit” into the pot—including “the guts of Donald Trump”—and bring it to a saucy boil so as to “unearth original pagan elements” of the winter solstice festival that early Christians appropriated and made into Christmas. The audience was definitely on board with that.
To the accompaniment of the terrifically talented and diverse band and backup singers (conducted by Music Director and Arranger Matt Ray on piano), the show began on an unexpectedly dark note as judy sang a dramatic/operatic rendering of The Velvet Underground’s “The Black Angel’s Death Song—whimsically juxtaposed, however, with the cheery “Carol of the Bells.”
Taylor explained that this “queer holiday show” was actually conceived as a tribute to Mother Flawless Sabrina, the beloved drag mother, now deceased, who was judy’s mentor and whose photograph descends up stage, as if overseeing all. “You have to commit to the universe,” judy quoted her, “before the universe will commit to you.”
“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” brought “tidings of comfort and joy” in the form of “Baby Jesus” in a manger—played here by the bare-chested Neo-Boylesque performance artist James Tigger! Ferguson, lolling luridly on a bed of straw. The tickled crowd was all in for what was fast becoming a wild hybrid of sacred and profane.
Taylor’s patter between musical numbers was as outré as the songs. For instance, judy informed us that at the time Christians observe as the approximate birth date of Jesus, there were actually many religious figures whose miraculous resurrections appear in similar stories in a host of ancient cultures. (This I remembered from my seminary days.) “Jesus,” judy joked, is “a cover version of born-again saviors.”
Then later, dead serious: “So many people have died in the name of Christ that I can’t believe it all.”
To provide “equal opportunity to be critical of one’s culture,” judy invited to the stage out NPR radio personality Ari Shapiro, who wore a sharp maroon blazer in marked contrast to what judy had on. The lights abruptly got all blue and gold (Lighting Designer John Torres made much such magic), and Shapiro sang a disarming Hanukah song, “Feast of Lights” by the band They Might Be Giants:
…The only thing we have is fights,
But there’s got to be a change tonight.
Please be nice on this feast of lights.
Flirting hilariously with sacrilege, Taylor next led the audience in a singalong to “O’ Holy Night”—except with “substitution skills” so we could swap in “queer meanings” for the lyrics. (At this point you might want to stop reading if you are feeling your sacred cows need to be let out.) The word holy, judy demonstrated, should be accompanied by a gesture of rhythmically poking the stiff pinched fingers of one hand into an orifice formed by the other. The line Fall on your knees should be enacted as genuflection for oral action. And the word divine should be done with a nelly inflection and swish of a limp wrist. As a full-throated chorus of voices filled this unsanctimonious sanctum, the audience, it is fair to say, were in liberation heaven.
There were also some gorgeous interludes of Christmas music played straight. Vocalist Steffanie Christi’an, for instance, sang a moving medley of “Little Drummer Boy” and “Peace On Earth.” Later Thornetta Davis—”queen of Detroit blues”—sang a stunning “Do You Hear What I Hear,” while Taylor ceded centerstage and joined the backup singers.
Then it came time again for high camp, and Machine Dazzle entered down the aisle dressed as 9-foot-tall Christmas tree. Meanwhile the photo of Mother Flawless Sabrina got draped in descending garlands of more sparkle. Amazement piled upon amazement at what would happen next.
On risers upstage was NEWorks Voices of America, introduced as “an elder choir,” in red and green holiday wear. They sang a rousing version of The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” then judy explicated the lyrics, which it turns out are predatorial. This segued into an extraordinary #MeToo segment, a public service workshop featuring “Sexual Consent Santa Claus” played by the nonbinary, body-liberationist theater artist Glenn Marla. The moment was mindblowing. (And after the show those who wished could line up in the lobby to have a photo taken with them.)
Perhaps as counterprogramming (I’m not sure), Tigger! returned with a number set to “Dazzle” and did a striptease down to a net sack on his junk, after which he invited audience members to lift him aloft so he could fly near nudely up the aisle.
A sign outside had said no one under 21 was permitted to participate in the show, and it further became clear why when audience members invited to the stage were handed shots of Jameson and Bushmills. This precipitated another singalong, The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” (“It was Christmas Eve babe / in the drunk tank…”).
Steffanie Christi’an returned and sang a lovely “Grandma’s Hands” by Bill Withers (“Grandma’s hands / Picked me up each time I fell”). Taylor then joined in with a rendition of “Christmas With Grandma” by the Christian group Legacy Five into which was interpolated graphic imagery, which sounded like it could have been personal, of child abuse by elders at Christmastime. The onstage choir, Taylor explained, was there “to represent our chosen grandmas and grandpas,” a reminder of a redemption that for judy meant Mother Flawless Sabrina.
As the band played a jazz rendition of Silent Night, and as spotlights shone in turn on instrumentalists to audience applause, cutout clouds and moon descended. The mood was shifting from satire and snark to something else. It was Taylor’s final solo sung while playing ukelele: “How Can I Keep from Singing?” by the American contemporary Christian artist Chris Tomlin.
I can sing ’cause You pick me up
Sing ’cause You’re there
I can sing ’cause You hear me, Lord
When I call to You in prayer
The simplicity, sentiment, and sincerity came as a touching surprise.
Taylor Mac’s Holiday Sauce
Conceived, written, performed, and directed by Taylor Mac
Music Director & Arranger: Matt Ray; Set & Costume Designer Machine Dazzle; Co-Director: Niegel Smith; Lighting Designer: John Torres; Sound Designer: Jimin Brelsford; Executive Producer: Linda Brumbach; Associate Producer: Alisa E. Regas
Co-Produced and Commissioned by Pomegranate Arts and Nature’s Darlings
Taylor Mac, Vocals; Matt Ray, Piano and Vocals; Machine Dazzle, Performer
Bernice “Boom Boom” Brooks, Drums; Steffanie Christi’an, Vocals; Thornetta Davis, Vocals; Viva DeConcini, Guitar; Antoine Drye, Trumpet; Greg Glassman, Trumpet; Walter Hawkes, Trombone; Marika Hughes, Cello; Dana Lyn, Violin; Gary Wang, Bass
with Special Guests NEWorks Voices of America, Nolan Williams, Jr., Music Director; James Tigger! Ferguson; Glenn Marla
Running Time: Two hours, with no intermission
Taylor Mac’s Holiday Sauce played December 12, 2019, presented by The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Pomegranate Arts at The Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC.
READ John Stoltenberg’s review, “Taylor Mac’s ‘A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (Abridged)’ at The Kennedy Center”