"Not all white people are racist." That's what one audience member stopped the performance of Taylor Mac's A 24-Decade History of Popular Music to tell everyone at The Moore last Friday. And she wasn't going to leave the theater until everyone heard her out.
In its fullest form, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music is meant to be a 24-hour production. It's a bombastic, campy revisionist history of America—Mac describes the work as being "about how communities are built as a result of being torn apart"—and it includes over 246 songs and thirteen hours of original text. A NY Times reviewer described the full show as "one of the greatest experiences" of their life. Here's a trailer:
This past Friday at The Moore, Mac (pronoun: judy, as in Garland) brought Seattle a sliver (three whole hours) of the full production, with this evening focused on the decades between 1956 and 1986. The show is meant to be interactive and disruptive. Audience members are encouraged to dance, sing, and make use of the whole space. But on Friday, one audience member took Mac's invitation to be disruptive and fucking ran with it.
Here's what we know:
During the 1956-66 section of the show, Mac simulated the white flight of white city dwellers to the suburbs by making white audience members "flee" their seats. Afterward, Mac told the crowd that non-white audience members could get up and take whichever seats they wanted. (It should be noted that people aren't forced to interact at Mac's shows. At this performance, Mac explained that the audience members are in charge of their comfort. They even have a safe word—the exit.)
After singing a few more numbers, Mac encouraged the displaced white people to return to their seats. If a person of color had taken their original seat, the white people were told to just find another spot to sit.
This performed reparation typically goes over well and without incident. Displaced white audience members find new seats or POC choose to go back to their original seats—although, during this run of productions, Mac said a white man in San Francisco refused to be displaced and sat on the woman of color who took his seat. Mac encouraged people not to be assholes like that guy.
But at this point in the show on Friday, a middle-aged white woman walked up to the stage and, according to audience statements, told Mac she was offended. Mac asked if the woman had lost her seat, but she responded that her frustration wasn't about her seat. The woman was offended because she felt Mac was saying that all white people are racist. Seattle, after all, is progressive, and she took to the stage to make that point.
One audience member claimed the woman said, "You don't know Seattle," to which Mac responded, "I'm learning a lot about Seattle right now." The encounter became increasingly heated as the two went back and forth.
"Taylor tried to start some sort of dialogue," audience member Stephen Anunson told The Stranger, "but it quickly went south. Someone in the audience shouted, 'She's not from Seattle!" And Taylor responded, 'Trust me, she is.'"
The two continued to spar until Mac explained that sometimes—although never to this level—an antagonist emerges at Mac's shows. But Mac, the protagonist, was not alone in the theater. The audience members were supporting characters, and, Anunson said, "Taylor said to the audience, 'I'm going to leave the stage. You all figure it out.'" Taylor then left the stage.
This is when it got wild.
"The crowd had no idea what to do," said Anunson. "There was mumbling for a while. People started chanting 'safe word,' but that was pretty ineffective. Me and my friend started shouting 'get the fuck out,' but I don't think anyone heard us."
The Moore was slow to respond, presumably because the line between scripted performance and audience interaction was so blurry. Was she a plant? Were they supposed to kick this woman out? Give her a refund? And why are white Seattleites so touchy about the subject of displacing people of color? (👀)
A spokesperson for Seattle Theatre Group confirmed that after nearly 10 minutes of disruption, both Mason Sherry (STG's Theatre Manager) and Josh LaBelle (Executive Director of STG) came down to speak with the angry audience member. Eventually, the woman decided she was tired of the show and left the theater. Some audience members told The Stranger they thought Seattle Police Department officers arrived at the scene to escort the woman out, but a spokesperson for SPD told The Stranger that they could not locate any calls to The Moore on April 20.
After the woman's exit, Taylor resumed the stage and the performance continued.
The incident quickly spread around social media and the Seattle Gay Scene reported on Saturday that the heckler "SHUT DOWN" the show for over 10-minutes. But in a statement given to The Stranger Monday morning, Mac denied the idea that the woman "shut down" the show.
"It's being framed that she shut down the show for 10 minutes," Mac said, "and I posit that the 'shut down' was part of the show. She wasn’t a plant but it’s my point of view that the things that happen in the space between the start of the show and the end are actually the show. How does her heckling help us understand activism, civil rights, mob consciousness, individualism, institutionalized racism, privilege, and community? These are all themes of the show, which she helped us highlight."
Shut down or not, it was a big night at The Moore. Anunson told The Stranger, "I was a little stoned, but I think what happened was a victory for performance art. Mac made a three-hour show with no intermission—and a long interruption by an ignorantly privileged white woman—feel challenging, unexpected, and essential to understanding how art and activism are really one and the same."
A victory for performance art? Thanks, angry white lady. And Taylor Mac. And all you stoners who told the white lady to leave. You all made a good art baby.