Once a bigoted epithet, “queer” was reclaimed by the gay-rights movement as a proudly defiant self-description. But theater artist Taylor Mac, who will perform in the annual Out in the Tropics festival this week, prefers another definition: “Someone who was ostracized by society at an early age to such a degree they could never ostracize anyone else.”
“I love that,” says Mac. “It’s not about sexual preference or gender. It’s about being told you’re different, then being kicked out of society and choosing to live an alternative lifestyle and as a result having empathy towards others.”
When Out in the Tropics launched in 2010, the idea was to provide a platform for GLBTQ artists who would appeal to and speak for that community in South Florida. But for artists in this year’s festival, once-central issues of gay identity and rights are a secondary part of a broader mix.
The 20th Century Show is Mac’s humorous and subversive take on American history in the last century, with the artist — a sensation at the inaugural Out in the Tropics —singing and commenting on major pop songs from each decade.
In Post-Plastica Miami 2013, Ela Troyanos and Carmelita Tropicana use elaborate sets and video to portray a futuristic love triangle between an artist, her celebrity-hungry protégé and a creature who is half bear and half woman.
In Cubalandia, the fact that Cuban theater troupe El Ciervo Encantado and actress Mariela Brito are lesbian is irrelevant to their satire of the Cuban system.
The hunky members of string quartet Well-Strung may work a double-entendre and tight T-shirts, but their appeal is built mostly on the oddity of classical musicians performing Rihanna and Adele as well as Mozart.
Only the film Verde Verde, by Cuban director Enrique Pineda Barnet, tackles more traditional issues of gay male identity and homophobia in contemporary Cuba.
This year, Ever Chavez, director of festival presenter FundArte, embraced multiple genres — performance, theater, music, film — and a multifaceted audience of gay, straight, Cuban and Anglo South Floridians interested in cutting-edge ideas and/or Cuban issues.
“I was trying to focus on diversity,” Chavez says. “It’s not only about sexuality. Taylor Mac is … someone who is provoking the system. He’s giving you a piece where the audience can reflect on what kind of society this is.”
The New York-based Mac, whose acclaimed theater pieces are part cabaret, part solo performance and part socio-political comedy, all cloaked in a Kabuki-like drag of wildly inventive costumes and glittery make-up, has always championed and channeled the individual and outcast.
“My work has never been about gay people,” he says. “It’s always been about people choosing to travel down mass culture paths or alternative paths.”
And with gay characters now a regular presence in American living rooms via TV shows from Modern Family to Rupaul’s Drag Race, and the gay rights movement focused on inclusion in marriage and other social institutions, Mac is widening his search for an alternative vision.
“The country is changing so quickly now that people don’t know how to define American anymore, and so now we’re seeing that it gets to be defined in lots of different ways,” he says. “But those different ways are being commodified into the mainstream. Before, being gay meant an alternative lifestyle. Now being gay means shopping, it means double male income and you have influence on politics.”