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In If You See Something Say Something, a monologue that Mike Daisey performed in the Capital Fringe Festival 11 years ago, he described a visit to the Trinity test site in New Mexico. The U.S. tested a nuclear weapon there on July 6, 1945—the first-ever detonation of an atomic bomb.
Daisey returns to Trinity in his current show, A People’s History, which began its run last Friday and features the seated agitator occupying Arena Stage’s Kogod Cradle space through July 21. Or rather, he will be going back to that irradiated plot of desert—his new show comes in 18 chapters. On Saturday he’ll be performing Chapter 10 of a A People’s History, “The American Kryptonite.” That will likely be your only chance, for the foreseeable future, to hear it.
That’s because A People’s History is a serialized epic covering 527 years in the land now known as the United States of America. Each chapter is structured to work as a standalone piece, because even Daisey’s most devout followers are unlikely to clear their calendars for two-and-a-half weeks to catch the entire run. He’s recording the shows on high-def video; earlier this week he posted last Friday’s performance of Chapter 1, “The Gold Earring,” on YouTube. He hasn’t yet decided when or if he’ll release the others.
Anyway, Chapter 10 covers World War II, the subject of less hand-wringing and more celebration than almost any other era of American history. In a prior performance of this chapter, Daisey congratulated his audience for having opted to show up on the night he would discuss “The Good War.” After 165 years of hard-to-defend behavior, the U.S. got to muster its growing might in the service of unambiguous good against a clear and present evil …
… sort of.
Well. If you’re craving uncomplicated stories of American heroism, they are readily available. But Daisey, the most prodigiously gifted stage storyteller left standing since Spalding Gray took his own life 15 years ago, does not make uncomplicated stories. “There are no reliable narrators,” he once said. More recently, he has taken to observing from the stage that because America was founded by Puritans, it “fundamentally does not understand performance.” And that is how—to use one of the memorably horrific revelations that Professor Daisey returns to periodically throughout his marathon lecture session—the comforting fiction that George Washington had false teeth made of wood overtook the fact that his dentures were made of ivory, metal, and real teeth, likely pulled from the mouths of the people he enslaved.
Daisey extrapolated the show from two books: The one from which it borrows its title is, obviously, Howard Zinn’s landmark 1980 bestseller A People’s History of the United States—a critical re-examination of the way American history is usually taught in public school, written by a man who volunteered for service in World War II and flew bombers, went to college on the G.I. Bill, and became a professor of political science and a socialist. The other book is An American Pageant, the rather less inquisitive text that Daisey received as a high school student in Maine in the early 1990s. The two books are in dialogue with one another throughout his epic oration, the ommissions of the latter remedied by pointed material from the former. But the sensibility is pure Daisey.
Even if you’ve read Zinn’s book, which was updated and republished several times before the historian’s death in 2010, and even if you know Daisey’s work, the show feels more confrontational than what he’s done in the past.
“The way that he looks at the world around him is very particular to Mike,” says Jeffrey Meanza, associate artistic director of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, where A People’s History was “birthed”—Daisey’s preferred verb for presenting new work for the very first time—in March of 2018. “And then he’s able to balance that skill and intelligence with this really charming and acerbic—which is so weird to have those two words together—personality.”
That return to the Trinity test site in Chapter 10 isn’t the only opportunity the show gives veteran Daiseyites for trainspotting: Those who remember his political monologues The Trump Card or The Story of the Gun (performed at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in 2016 and 2018, respectively) will recognize A People’s History as an opus to which the 43-year-old yarn-spinner has been building for a long time.
Meanza says he and Guthrie honcho Joseph Haj, who first worked with Daisey when they were running PlayMakers Repertory Company in North Carolina about a decade ago, didn’t flinch when he pitched them his 18-parter. They booked the show in the Guthrie’s 200-seat Dowling Studio, where tickets cost just $9. One patron, Meanza says, attended every performance. “There was an exciting energy in the space because he was just leaping off the cliff.”
Daisey has performed A People’s History in one other city between then and now: Seattle, the town where he started his career as a monologuist about 20 years ago. A few weeks ago, he sent me recordings of his run of the show at Seattle Rep last November. Sequenced into an iTunes playlist, they add up to some 32 hours of talking—a pursuit at which Daisey is one of the very best practitioners in the world.
“Mike is, simply put, a great storyteller,” writes Maria Manuela Goyanes, Woolly Mammoth’s artistic director, in an email. She worked with Daisey on a number of shows during her 14-year tenure at The Public Theatre in New York City before coming to Woolly last year. “He understands the structure and form—how to rope us in, when to move to the personal, when to take a bird’s eye view, how to create suspense, how to deliver a punch line, and on and on.”
Indeed, a vanishingly small percentage of specimens from our swollen human herd excel at speech the way Daisey does; certainly no one else with whom I’ve ever had a face-to-face conversation. I strongly suspect that no one I’ve ever seen perform is as good at it as he is, either. He credits his ability to speak extemporaneously and fluidly—and also, not to belabor this point, at exhausting length—to his participation in speech and debate competitions as a student, but also to his years as a Dungeons & Dragons gamemaster. In this capacity, he would conjure up vivid imaginary worlds with elaborate histories, and keep his fellow gamers anchored within them.
But history class was deathly boring. The authors of An American Pageant tended to breeze past or elide entirely the broken treaties and the genocide that made it possible for the young United States to prosper and to have swelled up into its decadent phase so rapidly. But if the textbook, and Mr. Harville, his teacher, had been more forthcoming about the betrayals and the blood and the suffering?
“I would’ve loooooved history,” Daisey told his sold-out opening-night audience last Friday.
Two days before that, Daisey and I sit sweating on the terrace of his hotel, moving our chairs every so often to try to dodge the still-withering rays of early-evening sunlight. Perhaps this is the kind of confluence of occasion that he is so gifted at turning into scenes in his stories: Independence Day Eve with angry left-wing truth-teller Mike Daisey, newly arrived to Our Nation’s Capital to spend a few weeks talking about the horrors in our national basement—a metaphor he returns to throughout his tale.
He points out a sign in the elevator inviting guests and visitors to watch tomorrow night’s fireworks display from the roof deck for a cover charge of $250. But neither one of us have any grand plans for counterprogramming President Trump’s self-aggrandizing “Salute to America,” which has brought an atmosphere of mild unease and more pronounced depression to the city. Daisey has noticed an uptick in MAGA hats in the hotel in the two days since he arrived from New York, but that’s to be expected.
Our conversation returns, as it often has in the decade I’ve been reviewing his work, to his methods. He listens patiently as I tell him about an episode of Jesse David Fox’s podcast Good One wherein comedian Gary Gulman spoke for more than an hour, in granular detail, about the process of refining a 20-minute story that he told on stage for years before finally releasing it on one of his albums. The story was about how Gulman reacted when a woman cut in line in front of him at Trader Joe’s. Gulman was forthcoming and specific about how he made his tale of an extremely petty infraction feel enveloping; how he would adjust, over the course of countless performances, the length of a pause, or swap one adjective for another. He did all of this by listening to his audiences, of course, but also by making notes about how they responded. By writing.
But Daisey, whose caffeinated gab-a-thons run from 90 to 150 minutes and usually address more consequential topics—terrorism, the corrupting influence of money, the origins of America’s torrid love affair with firearms, how theater failed America (in a show called How Theater Failed America)—doesn’t do that. Although he’s released some of his work via his irregular podcast, All Stories Are Fiction, he isn’t trying to shape his pieces toward some ultimate expression that can be preserved forever. To him, the live performance, each live performance, is its ultimate expression.
It’s a notion that even audiences who are extremely receptive to and admiring of his work can have trouble getting their heads around. “If you don’t make a habit of offloading your thoughts into writing, you’ll find that you can retain them,” he tells me.
He also has a philosophical reason for embracing the shaggy quality of improvisation. One of the things he talks about in his show is the way “the default narrative” of American history—the one presented in books like An American Pageant—avoids assigning blame by taking cover in minutiae: Why, for example, could it possibly be important for children to learn about The Stamp Act or Pickett’s Charge? “It’s possible to value aesthetics so highly that you escape your responsibilities,” he says.
In his early twenties Daisey moved from Maine to Seattle, where he got involved in underground theater and temped before finding a job with a fast-growing startup. That part of his life became the monologue 21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com, which opened in Seattle at the long-gone Speakeasy Backroom in February of 2001 and got an off-Broadway production at the Cherry Lane Theatre 15 months later.
“I leveraged that really hard to try to create a career,” he says. “There are not a lot of people who come up through the American theater who have a background of garage theater. Traditionally someone like me, a fat person who wanted to go make garage theater, would not end up performing at Arena Stage.”
He adapted 21 Dog Years into a prose memoir, published in 2002. But since then, he’s remained fully committed to the oral tradition.
Although he performs seated behind a desk, with a handwritten outline in front of him, each monologue is unique and extemporaneous. It’s rare to see him glance down at his paper for more than a few seconds; he refers to his notes more often than is typical in A People’s History because he will occasionally quote a passage from Zinn’s book, or from a primary source document Zinn used in his reporting. He’s been preparing to perform A People’s History for the first time in eight months largely the same way I’ve been preparing to write about it: by playing back the recordings.
He surprises me by saying that he has, in the last few years, “come out as fat.” Daisey has had a rotund frame for as long as I’ve been seeing him perform, but it’s not something I can remember ever hearing him talk about before (though he will later point out to me that I have heard him talk about it). His body has influenced his career, he reflects, because had he opted to pursue acting or comedy—two potentially far more lucrative ways of using his very specific intellectual and expressive gifts—he would likely have been consigned to facile material, where his body was the joke. He chose a more solitary path, one in which he effectively has no peers.
“I knew that if I was going to do anything that meant anything, I would have to create that work myself,” he says.
A People’s History was “birthed” in Minneapolis 16 months ago, but it was conceived in 2014, at Besant Hill School, a prep school in the prosperous hippie enclave of Ojai, California. Besant Hill hosts the Ojai Playwright’s Conference each August, and Daisey had come to work on a monologue about his visit to Cuba—another thing we hear about in A People’s History.
He found himself nosing around a classroom that had a shelf richly stocked with Zinn’s book. He marveled that this school was so progressive that their standard U.S. history text was by Howard Zinn. He tried to imagine what it would be like if anyone from the high school he had attended in rural Maine, where no one considered it unusual when his classmates brought their hunting rifles to school with them, had proposed teaching from this book. He took a copy from the shelf and thumbed through it, though he’d read it before. Then he stole it. (That he obtained it via theft must be important to him, because he repeats this anecdote in a note in the show’s program.) It’s on his desk in front of him at each performance of the show it inspired.
For many years, Daisey’s former spouse, Jean-Michele Gregory, was credited as his director. Now, he says, he more or less directs himself, sending recordings to a circle of confederates and soliciting their feedback.
One of those is his friend Isaac Butler, who had a directing credit on Daisey’s monologue The Trump Card, birthed before a small audience in Woolly Mammoth’s rehearsal room three summers ago. (Yes, he’s the same Isaac Butler who writes about theater and other things for Slate.) Butler, who has known Daisey since 2004, has directed many traditional stage plays, with multiple actors and blocking and scene changes and all of the things the phrase “theater director” conjures in your mind. I asked him what a director does on a show where there’s a single performer, who is also the playwright, but who is also improvising, and who spends the entire show seated behind a table.
“Mike is a very smart and rigorous critic of himself and of his own work,” Butler says. His role on The Trump Card took the form of regular meetings for coffee or lunch through 2015 and 2016, watching much more footage of candidate Trump than he wanted to, and texting with Daisey through each of the Republican primary debates and into the general election. As Trump became a more credible threat, that demanded calibration to the show.
“When we started doing The Trump Card, he was just sort of a fringe, wacky candidate,” Butler says. “The show had a different meaning when it ended, which was a week before election night.” Butler was busy with his own projects during this period, but he caught performances in several cities, and responded to recordings on the many occasions he couldn’t attend in person. But there would be little point in trying to repeat that procedure for this show, because Daisey is performing each of its chapters only once.
“The hugeness of A People’s History as a stage project is something that has not been reckoned with by the public at large,” Butler says. “It’s an undertaking that very few people would, could, or should do.”
The significance of doing the show in the nation’s capital is self-evident, but D.C. is also a friendly laboratory for Daisey. Since If You See Something Say Something, about our national paranoia in the seven years after 9/11, he’s become a regular here.
Capital Fringe Festival founding director Julianne Brienza says that even though Daisey lives in New York, she considers him a part of the D.C. theater community—which was one reason she invited him to return to the festival this year, after she saw a Facebook post from him last fall expressing an interest in touring the show. She was drawn both to the subject of A People’s History and to its form. “It’s sort of an endurance project,” Brienza says by phone on the morning the show will open. “Which is akin to the energy of a festival.”
Although Arena Stage is the building, Capital Fringe is the organization paying his fee. “From our line of credit,” Brienza volunteers. “So we have a lot of faith in him.” (Unlike the regional theaters where he frequently performs, Capital Fringe does not have a subscriber base, so for them to book a headliner like Daisey is a bit of a gamble.) She says that if the run plays to at least 40 percent capacity in the 200-seat theater, the nonprofit festival will recoup its investment. While the initial ticket costs $35, patrons can return for any performance after their first for $20.
But the deeper longing to present work that wrestled with America’s foundational sins had been buzzing in Brienza’s mind since the day she brought her staff to the National Museum of African American History and Culture a few months after it opened in September 2016. “We were there for six or seven hours, and I was honestly just kind of flabbergasted about the number of things I’d been taught completely incorrectly in school.”
In the 11 years since his first Capital Fringe appearance, Daisey has made Woolly Mammoth his local home. It was there, in 2010, that he birthed The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, his account of the life of the Apple founder, his own journey as an Apple obsessive, and of the cruel working conditions in the Shenzhen, China, factories that manufacture Apple products.
It was the most acclaimed work of his career, at least until This American Life compressed the latter part of it into an hour-long radio piece in January 2012. The show subsequently discovered that Daisey had invented several of its most powerful scenes, taking the extraordinary step of building an entire second episode around their retraction of the first. Daisey maintained, then and now, that nothing he said about conditions in the factories is untrue, as has been documented by a 2012 New York Times series for which the NYT staff was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting. (I compiled an account of Daisey’s exaggerations and inventions in a July 2012 Washington City Paper story.)
Plenty of people wrote him off after that, but those of us who didn’t have watched his gifts of synthesis and oral expression continue to flower. American Utopias, another show “birthed” at Woolly and addressing, in part, the Occupy Movement (and also Disneyland and Burning Man), returned to that theater for a full run in 2013. Daisey has continued to present more overtly political pieces there, including The Trump Card and The Story of the Gun, the two that seem most to have informed A People’s History. The Story of the Gun linked America’s love of firearms to its twin pillars of genocide and slavery—in Daisey’s diagnosis, the unfathomable sins that have made denial a defining characteristic of the United States.
In his recent work, he has taken to reminding his audiences that they are theater people, predominantly white, liberal, and prosperous, albeit loath to say so. That they are spending their evening the way they are indicates that they are almost certainly among the winners in a country that has given itself schizophrenia through refusal to own that it was built on genocide and slavery, and one that it retains its commitment, albeit unspoken, to the ethos of white supremacy that spurred its Puritan occupiers to exterminate one race and enslave another.
He goes further, repeating variations on: “You are racist and sexist, and I am too,” again and again. He does not spare himself, observing that only an artist drunk on his (probably not her) white privilege would opt to put on a show where he speaks for a day-and-a-third.
Another document he refers to throughout A People’s History is one even more alarming than Zinn’s book: It’s the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report suggesting we have, give or take, 20 years before the damage to our planet becomes dire and irreversible. “The sun is setting” is a theme to which Daisey frequently returns, one surely chosen for its allusions of empire but also for its encapsulation of a threat that will reshape our world: As the equatorial countries become too hot for habitation, their populations will flee toward the poles, creating a refugee crisis. This mass migration, Daisey predicts, will drive the people of the United States to surrender to our government a degree of power that will dwarf what we allowed them to take in the aftermath of 9/11.
It is easy for Americans not to think about how our planet may be getting ready to shrug us off as a species, in Daisey’s estimation, because we are well practiced at avoiding things we do not wish to think about.
One of the new monologues he’s begun thinking about concerns the end of the world.