The solo showman talks about his latest

New York Time Out

By Adam Feldman

If Mike Daisey is indeed the preeminent monologuist of his generation, as the growing consensus about him would have it, it is partly because of his work’s sheer breadth. Seated at a desk with just notes and water for props, Daisey takes audiences on wide-ranging journeys to the four corners of the mind, often using his own life as a test case for thought experiments. His latest piece, The Last Cargo Cult, finds Daisey jetting off to the South Pacific and delving into our own hearts of financial darkness.

The press release for The Last Cargo Cult features photos of you in a very exotic-looking locale. How did you end up there?
About a year ago, I was doing If You See Something Say Something here at the Public, and the financial collapse was really accelerating. When I perform, I can’t go to sleep afterward, so I was up very late surfing the Web, and I followed a chain of links to an article about this island, Tanna, in the Vanuatu island chain. I’d studied cargo cults for a number of years, but I had not realized that they have a celebration one day a year—in the village of Lamakara, at the base of a volcano—where they tell the history of America in dance, theater and song. And I had an epiphany that I should go to this island right away.

What exactly is a cargo cult?
During World War II, the United States set up military bases on islands far away from the conflict. That meant that some islands that had very little contact with the outside world abruptly had airfields and U.S. airmen on them and chocolate and cigarettes and refrigerators and radios and all this magical awesome shit. When the Americans left, religions sprang up that worshipped America—or, more specifically, the objects of America. What they want is cargo, which we often infantilize as, like, iPods and tissue paper and jewelry. But cargo is medicine and guns and knives: It’s tools. They want power. And they want that power explicitly to preserve their way of life.

So has no irony crept into this religion yet?
Well, that’s the thing about human worship. About a century ago, Tanna was ground zero if you were a missionary and you wanted to be eaten; it had the fiercest history of cannibalism anywhere in the South Pacific. That seems alien and terrifying to us, but I belong to a culture where one dominant belief system involves changing bread into flesh and then eating it. And that belief system is 2,000 years old and largely practiced without irony.

What’s the B-plot in this piece? What’s the counterpoint?
It’s been a real challenge to make sure they’re both A-plots, because the island is so Technicolor. But the other story line is a story of our culture. The monologue looks at this belief system that seems very absurd to us and then uses that as a tool to examine what I believe is the overwhelmingly dominant religion of the first world, which is the financial system—a belief system that relies on trust and faith and sympathetic magic.

You work from notes instead of a set script. What happens if you decide to publish your pieces?
We’re actually going to publish an anthology next year; we’ll be working from representative transcripts. When I was young, I would drink a lot of bourbon and rail about how the written word was the death of the American theater. Obviously I’ve fallen away from my youthful idealism, as most of us do. But I want to create a piece that is not capturable, and I hope to do it with scale. It’s tentatively titled All the Hours of the Day, and it’s a 24-hour monologue—or actually 24 monologues that follow the rotation of the earth through each time zone. One of the things I most dislike about theater now is the feeling that everything has limits. I’m excited at the idea of doing a piece that I am not certain is completable.

Are there any things in your personal life that you won’t talk about onstage?
There’s a great expression that I learned: “Do not call up what you cannot put down.” In monologue, the hope is to shine a light through your life so that you can illuminate it like a map, so the audience is involved. But there are certain things that you’re not ready to talk about onstage. If the emotional weight is too high, then it can exceed your capacity to put yourself around the story, and then it becomes spectacle. Daytime television, where people are having breakdowns, is riveting to watch, but that’s not the same as a mediated theatrical event, a story being told. My job is to dissolve as many boundaries as possible, and that’s why the works still aren’t scripted—at a fundamental level I want the knowledge that we can be in a different place each night to be real, and not just a theatrical illusion. But the only people who truly have no boundaries are insane.

The Last Cargo Cult plays the Public Theater through December 13.