One does not merely watch a Taylor Mac and Matt Ray performance, one experiences it, and when they turn their attention exclusively to queerness, you ride the waves of a musical art extravaganza until you wash up on a distant shore, exhausted but elated. Their new show, Bark of Millions, features fifty-five brand new songs, each looking at queer pioneers across time, blending genres and tone. We get dance bangers, disco-infused numbers, folk odes, Spirituals, spoken word, punk rock, R&B, and everything in between.
Bark of Millions world premiered last night at Australia’s Sydney Opera House, marking the 50th anniversary of the iconic building and in many ways it feels like a statement of intent for the venue. Turning over the recently refurbished Concert Hall to this collective of queer artists for a one-off, four-hour-long performance makes it clear that this House has a bold agenda in a city that can often feel behind the cultural avant-garde. This semicentennial birthday celebration shows that is certainly not the case here.
The show takes its title from an Egyptian creation myth that defies conventional ideas about gender (look up ‘Atum’ and the ‘Bark of the Millions’, it’s quite fascinating and poetic). Just as Atum created themselves by speaking their own name aloud, the night begins with a chant-like utterance, from which this Bark of Millions is brought forth. As co-directors Niegel Smith and Faye Driscoll told The Queer Review in our recent interview with them, their intention was partly to make the audience “more queer”, and this “reverse conversion therapy”, as Mama Alto calls it in the show’s introduction, does just that.
The set up of celebrating LGBTQ+ pioneers from James Baldwin to Frankie Knuckles to Sappho to Margaret Cho (it’s an eclectic bunch), gives us a broad and enticing context, but ultimately we’re here for the music, and the music is mesmerizing. People often describe Mac and Ray’s previous show, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, as a “religious” experience and Bark of Millions has that energy too. This feels like a cross between the best house party you’ve ever been to, a tent revival, a hedonistic nightclub, and a ritualistic gathering: it’s queer church at its ecstatic best.
This particular collection of artists on stage is dynamite, including: Ari Folman-Cohen, Bernice “Boom Boom” Brooks, Chris Giarmo, Dana Lyn, El Beh, Greg Glassman, Jack Fuller, Joel E. Mateo, Lisa “Paz” Parrott, Machine Dazzle, Mama Alto, Marika Hughes, Matt Ray, Sean Donovan, Steffanie Christi’an, Stephen Quinn, Thornetta Davis, Viva DeConcini, and Wes Olivier. This is the cabaret lineup of your dreams. Each unique, each full of abundant verve and charisma. Given the opportunity to speak directly to the audience, the ever-delicious Le Gateau Chocolat was a clear stand out, while Jules Skloot offers a calm centre amidst the queer storm around them. Taylor Mac and Matt Ray’s genius isn’t limited to the music and staging, it is also in bringing together and creating a community of artists of the highest calibre who will rehearse for months and fly around the world to deliver a single, exceptional performance.
What’s remarkable from a theatrical standpoint is how well the evening is modulated. At four hours with no interval (though the audience is openly invited to come and go as they please), it all flows beautifully. Machine Dazzle’s costumes are queer club showstoppers that constantly evolve as the performers remove layer after layer, keeping our eyes as engaged as our ears. It wasn’t until deep into the third hour that I began to realize how much time had passed in a brief, meditative break of my own reverie. Glancing around, as the smooth postcoital end neared, I noticed that some of the audience hadn’t made it to the finale, which is frankly their loss.
From moments of quiet beauty to scenes of choreographed utter creative chaos, Bark of Millions is a thrilling experience I’ll not soon forget. This single night in Sydney is clearly the start of a new chapter for Taylor Mac and Matt Ray, with shows planned for New York and the Bay Area in 2024.. Do not pass up on an opportunity to experience it for yourself.
By Chad Armstrong
Bark of Millions received its World Premiere at the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House, Australia on Friday October 20th, 2023.