Returning to my previous piece on Mike Daisey, I was worried that my effusive headline was a bit too much. “Save America?” I groaned at my own hyperbole. But revisiting the piece and thinking through his new opus, The Last Cargo Cult, only at the Public through this weekend, I was reminded that, as always, Tweed’s judgments are sound, friends.
The fact that any performer can keep an audience captivated, alternately silenced and laughing hysterically, without ever moving from his chair is tribute enough. However, in classic Daisey style, his weaving of texts, events, and ideas puts more power in a ten-minute anecdote about blue jeans than most plays can convey in their entirety.
In The Last Cargo Cult, Daisey documents his trip to the island of Tanna, a blip of an island on the Pacific rim. This is the last refuge of a phenomenon that is unknown to most Americans: in one of the most bizarre, unwritten chapters of World War II, Japan and the U.S. built army bases throughout these tiny islands in case the war escalated. (And, for reasons Daisey went into in If You See Something Say Something, it didn’t.) In many cases, Japanese soldiers were left to wonder whether the war had ended or not. Some soldiers were found remaining as late as 1972. They had never been informed the war was over, and then some.
On the American side, small island cultures, who had little if any contact with the world beyond, were suddenly overrun with American soldiers, who ate chocolate and flew like birds in giant contraptions, and had radios and strange clothes and languages. And one day, as quickly as they had come, they vanished, and these island cultures were left to wonder what the hell had happened. Many worshipped America/Americans as gods, and understandably so, thus the “cargo cults” were born. It’s this latter phenomenon that Daisey takes up in his piece.
Tanna is the last holdout, celebrating John Frum Day once a year, a day filled with American “history,” filtered mostly through the lens of the villagers, filtered mostly from lore of the 1940s encounter. Song, dance, and theatre are in abundant supply, featuring portrayals of American presidents, an obscene number of flags, and in one particularly amazing episode, a lengthy movement piece in which President Obama is chased around in a giant circle by “something like a dragon.”
Despite this great amount of intrigue and totally insane ideas behind the day’s activities, the celebration is surprisingly peripheral to the two-hour performance. He uses Tanna, a communal culture with no capitalistic system or ideals, as a corollary to the problems behind the financial collapse last year. Daisey is thrilled by even a moment of consideration for the foundation of Western civilization: money. That is to say, that ever since the removal of the gold standard by Nixon in the late 60s, the world’s monetary system is governed by consensus, by the market. In other words: it’s totally arbitrary.
So, who’s crazier? A “backwards” island culture that worships a volcano, eats fermented yak paste, and lives fairly peacefully with what they possess, or a “developed” country whose population and livelihood is determined by the ink on pieces of paper? Whose faith is more fucked? Whose values are stronger and more evolved with the times? The answer may surprise you.
And although this is the least nuanced of Daisey’s pieces—at times it verges on Michael Moore-ish bullying—Daisey is still one of the most phenomenal performers and cultural critics of the 21st century. And a gesture made before Daisey even takes the stage (which some critics have totally spoiled) is one of the ballsiest and coolest moves I have ever seen an artist make in the name of conviction.
Go see it, and happy holidays. Keep buying all that awesome stuff.