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.”
The 20th Century Show is part of a larger project in which Mac will delve into 24 decades of American culture, beginning with the nation’s founding, in a 24-hour performance. In Friday’s show, he will turn songs like the overblown Gloria Branigan ’80s dance hit Gloria into a ritual for exorcising outdated assumptions.
“I use the example of Gloria as the last song to be performed without any irony,” he says. “It was such a cheese-ball song that everyone had to be ironic after that. We’re going to let that go, that we can only be ironic or earnest, and be fluid between the two. I make everyone sing it ironically and earnestly, and then combine the two.”
When Alina Troyano, who performs as Carmelita Tropicana, was studying acting and comedy in the early ’80s in New York, she felt isolated not only by her sexuality, but by her Cuban heritage. Her father fought with and then rebelled against Castro, but Troyano remembers hearing her fellow students laugh uproariously at the name of the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater and thinking “Cuban, Puerto Rican, we’re all the same to them — I’m never gonna be an actor. … I’m not tall enough or blonde enough.”
She found her path to an illustrious 30-year career as a theater and performance artist at the WOW Café, a lesbian theater showcase in the East Village.
“I went to WOW and I found something more long-lasting than girls — I found theater,” Troyano says.
She created Carmelita Tropicana, a “Lower East Side beauty queen,” to satirize and encompass her sexuality and her sense of rebelling against commercial culture.
“Before Ellen, before Modern Family or Will and Grace or Glee there was WOW doing all these things at a grassroots level that filters to the top. … It becomes part of the culture and sometimes co-opted,” Troyano says. “We were the generation that thought we were not the mainstream — we were fighting against the mainstream.”
One strand in Post-Plastica Miami is the competition between wannabe art star Plastica and the older Carmelita, who goes into a coma after using expired Botox and wakes up a thousand years in the future floating in a shark tank a la superstar artist Damien Hirst. The wild and satirical mix of themes includes environmental crisis and bee-colony collapse as well as discrimination against Ursa, a bear-woman hybrid.
“Maybe today we are discriminating against a woman with another woman, but maybe in the future it will be against a woman with a transpecies,” says Troyano’s sister and collaborator, filmmaker Ela Troyano.
That thought-provoking mix of ideas is exactly what festival organizer Chavez is after.
“Out in the Tropics is becoming a different kind of festival that really makes people reflect on all sorts of things,” he says. “Nowadays everybody is so entertained. But sometimes we need to think a little bit. Sometimes you need to go to a performance that says, ‘Who are you?’ ”