Mike Daisey has always been a tremendous storyteller, monologuist, and general rabble-rouser in his solo performances. Armed only with a desk, a microphone, and a few sheets of legal paper, he has weaved intricate tales of “great” and crazy men, Amazon.com, and most recently How Theatre Failed America. His insight and charisma shine through as he profusely sweats for us, his love of being onstage.
His new piece, If You See Something Say Something, goes above and beyond his typical observation-comedy, and brings him into a realm of truly amazing theatre. If You See Something is a tapestry of the expected contemporary era of “homeland security,” and the history of the Trinity Test, the first deployment of the atomic bomb in New Mexico, on July 16, 1945. By combining history, current politics, and his childhood obsession with weapons of mass destruction, Daisey single-handedly reveals the solution to the culture of fear the U.S. has built up so stealthily. Go with me on this.
One of Daisey’s opening stories is pulling up to the White Sands army base, where for one day every year, from dawn to dusk, the “memorial” for the first A-bomb is opened to the public (Daisey is quick to point out that although most people have forgotten about White Sands, it is the locale of the largest weapons development anywhere—it’s by far, not so ironically, the largest stockpile of weapons of mass destruction in the world.) Upon reaching the gate, Daisey is struck by the guard’s blunt opening line: “Alcohol or firearms?” The imposition is so blunt, clear-cut, and transparent, that Daisey casts his first and perhaps most ingenious observation of the evening: security in America isn’t about safety; it’s “the elimination of metaphor.” And how right he is: the question is as ineffective as the political rhetoric of “with us or against us,” as ineffective as the hundreds of billions of dollars being spent on defense (defense?) abroad, and the color-coded terror alert system. This is what Daisey refers to as “security theatre” at White Sands, at the airports, on CNN. Security theatre is one big act to make like something is being done to protect us, when, in reality, hijacking won’t happen anymore, toothpaste is not an explosive, politicians use fear to get votes, and xenophobia has become a commodified industry. It’s all the stuff of melodramatic posturing, not even psychological realism: if it were Method theatre, at least the politicians would know their background and objectives.
Daisey takes many detours along the way to introduce us to his childhood, characters at Los Alamos, and the Patriot Act. And they come together in an—achem—explosive conclusion. As Daisey is leaving White Sands, he is ushered past, naturally, souvenir stands and, despite his objective disgust at mushroom cloud t-shirts, must buy almost one of everything. Most significantly, though, is a model of the bomb-as-keychain. He of course points out that he buys this as a reminder, while astounded that those around him will use it pragmatically: they’ll take it out of the packaging, and string their keys on it. They will use the most grandiose symbols of deterrence and defense as a home for the most quotidian symbols of comfort and safety, for their cars, their homes, their gym locks. And despite the direct correlation, the ignorance of it is ultimately sad, heartbreaking even.
And I stand firm in Daisey’s antidote to festival of fear, and that is nuance. Despite the best efforts of those who profit from terror, and those who mindlessly enjoy playing the victims, there are still people like Mike Daisey to read between the lines, to see the spectrum of emotions, pathways, and solutions to, well, a good, ethical life. I can’t help but laugh as a theatre historian at this, that despite the myriad of attempts at a “political” theatre, from the Greeks to the French Revolution, to Brecht, to performance art, one of the most effective, moving, and thought-provoking pieces I’ve come across is a man in a black shirt, sitting at a table, and parsing out how silly theatre really is.