Mike Daisey: A Political Monologuist’s Summer of Trump

07.06.16
Mike Daisey
The New York Times

The monologuist Mike Daisey was sitting on a bench in Brooklyn’s Carroll Park, nursing a cup of coffee and talking about his new show, “The Trump Card,” a critically comedic probe of what makes the presumptive Republican presidential nominee tick. Suddenly a man sitting alone nearby broke out in a noisy, mostly on-key rendition of “God Bless America.” Mr. Daisey stopped midsentence and looked over.

“That’s fascinating,” he said.

The place where peculiarity and patriotism meet is the dramaturgical sweet spot Mr. Daisey explores in his new monologue, which had its premiere this month in workshop performances at the Woolly Mammoth Theater in Washington.

In the 90-minute piece, directed by Isaac Butler, Mr. Daisey places Donald J. Trump’s political rise in the context of American racism, reality television, political egotism and working-class fears. In one section he carefully draws lines between Mr. Trump and Roy Cohn, especially as Tony Kushner so savagely depicted the ruthless McCarthy-era lawyer in the play “Angels in America.” (Mr. Cohn was Mr. Trump’s lawyer for 13 years before he died of AIDS in 1986.)

While Mr. Trump is the focus of the show, Mr. Daisey also looks carefully at his own work as a chronicler-fabulist. At a recent performance, he got a big laugh when he mentioned the scandal that erupted in 2012 when the public radio show “This American Life” aired, then retracted, a version of his monologue, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” about Apple’s manufacturing practices in China, after journalists with the show discovered that Mr. Daisey had embellished and fabricated portions of the work. (Mr. Daisey apologized for the incident.)

After working on “The Trump Card” for about a year, Mr. Daisey plans to release his script for free and perform it himself this summer in Philadelphia, New York and Washington. One place he may not visit is Cleveland, the host city of the Republican National Convention this month.

“No one wants to engage with it at all,” he said of the Cleveland theaters he had contacted. “They are really freaked out. They feel very scared.”

He may just show up anyway. “I don’t actually need a theater,” he said. “I can just buy a plane ticket and I’ll go to Cleveland and see what I see and talk about what it’s like.”

Mr. Daisey recently spoke about these and other issues in what’s shaping up to be his Summer of Trump. Following are excerpts — Mr. Daisey is a monologuist after all — from the conversation.

In the show you say to Republicans: You are responsible for Mr. Trump because you ignored him and laughed at him. You say to Democrats: You’re responsible because you ignored working-class white guys. Is that right?

That’s something of a simplification. What I actually said about the Republican Party is that they were racist. Just so we don’t soften it too much. I think they also didn’t take him seriously. When you do racist [expletive] for decades, over and over, then eventually you get to say it’s a racist party. Riling up the base and making this base very angry and making it racially charged by dog-whistling endlessly, year after year, has consequences, and this is one of them.

But you don’t let the left or Democrats off the hook either.

The thing about a theatrical performance especially is that your job is to work with and speak to the people in the room. People in the theater are the left. I’m always interested in skewering, examining and implicating the people in the room because they are the ones that showed up for the performance. Once you implicate them, then they actually start thinking about what their position is. I’m doing the monologue and if I’m telling you, “You agree with me, don’t you?” and you say “I do,” and I say “I do too, I feel so good about that,” that’s not useful.

In the show you spend time talking about how Tony Kushner theatricalized Roy Cohn and how Mr. Trump theatricalizes himself. What are the connections?

Tony Kushner only has a few scenes that have Roy Cohn in them. It leads to a condensing and a poeticizing of language and an intensifying. That’s why it becomes so theatrical, because the language becomes so heightened. Trump really exemplifies that. He’s an incredibly performative figure. He’s an entertainer, and a demagogue. I understand this because our jobs are actually quite similar. I’m quite different than Trump but my tool set is not.

Read the rest of the review here