If you want to see The Trump Card, master monologuist Mike Daisey’s new work reflecting on how we’ve arrived in our current state of Trump primacy, you’ll have to take a trip. Daisey has July dates scheduled in Philadelphia, and at The Public Theater, his artistic home in Manhattan. Other performances remain TBA. Daisey performed a few iterations of the piece in the rehearsal room at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company last weekend as a guest of the Theatre Communications Group, which held its annual conference in D.C. this year. Why should you care? The best known (and best) of his monologues, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, began its life in the same way: as a woolly test-run here at Woolly, six years ago.
Prior Daisey shows have followed a similar path to production, like The Last Cargo Cult, which had a workshop performance in 2009 and then a full production in 2010. The same could happen with The Trump Card, regardless of what happens on Election Day—its critique is not confined to a single, terrifying candidate.
Where Daisey ran aground in Steve Jobs was in inventing a couple of pivotal first-person scenes in his account of his journey to Shenzhen, China to examine the conditions in the plants that make Apple products. But his visit to China was only half the show. Its other part was a pointed biography of Jobs, with occasional, minor points of intersection with Daisey’s own life.
The Trump Card operates in a similar way: It’s a portrait of a public figure based on public information, with small but revelatory elements of autobiography. Daisey has no insight into Trump’s background or behavior that isn’t also available to others, but he’s masterful synthesizer and contextualizer. He should not be your sole source on any subject, a sentiment with which I am certain he would agree. But his ability to spin layered, entrancing oral stories working from handwritten outlines amounts to a superpower. (So does his ability to project enormous energy into a room while he remains seated behind a table, mopping his brow with a handkerchief.) I’ve watched him perform half a dozen of his pieces—the most recent to get a full Woolly run was American Utopias three years ago—and listened to recordings of several others. I don’t ever recall hear him refer to Spalding Gray as “my predecessor” before this one, but he’s earned the association. He knows how to keep people listening.
It’s a trait he shares with one Donald J. Trump. He been studying the man, you see. He parses the candidate’s speeches, in a way, he speculates, that playgoing liberals do not. When Daisey says Trump is “really good at his job” and that “you don’t have to understand a thing to be able to do it,” you may reasonably wish for deeper specificity. But you still know what he means.
Daisey offers the anecdote of his yard-sale-scavenging father sending him a copy of Trump’s board game—“Monopoly for dogs,” in Daisey’s summation—which tickles him enough to invite friends over to play. He returns to this scene in his apartment periodically to keep us oriented through an expansive journey that ricochets, with Daisey’s characteristic fluency, off many topics. One of them is Trump’s slumford father Fred Trump, a man as “unreconstructedly racist” as Daisey’s own granddad. Fred Trump is also Woody Guthrie’s landlord, and apparently the subject of several of his songs. (Though I’m willing to bet the title “Fuck This Fucking Fred Trump in the Eye Sockets, I Have No Water Pressure” is proof that Daisey’s artistic license and registration are in order.)
He decries Trump’s all-but-certain nomination as “the sweet, sticky fruit of the ‘Southern strategy’” the GOP has used to propel its candidates for half a century, enabled by a new, rage-fueled recklessness first signaled by the party’s willingness to make the dangerously inept Governor Sarah Palin the presidential running mate in 2008.
Many of us will remember that moment, along with the rise of reality TV around the turn of the century. We’re less likely to have been aware of Trump during the the 13-year period when Roy Cohn—the notorious figure of the Red Scare, and unwitting star of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1993 two-part play Angels in America—was Trump’s lawyer, driving home whatever tenets of the attack, never apologize philosophy not already imparted by Trump’s old man. “If Trump is Darth Vader, then Roy Cohn is his Emperor Palpatine,” Daisey quips.
But this is no #I’mWithHer pep rally. It broadens into a grim indictment of the two-party system that allowed Trump to become a contender. The left, he maintains, is as culpable and vulnerable as the right, as Bernie Sanders’ surprisingly tenacious bid for the Democratic nomination proved. And neither party can claim with any conviction to have served constituents like Daisey’s mother, a trailer-dwelling janitor who hasn’t seen a wage increase or a paid vacation in a decade.
There is, as usual, a lot to unpack here. In one fascinating passage, Daisey recalls being made the victim of “anti-fat hate speech” while made up for a photo shoot as Trump. He understood that the man who insulted him was aiming his bile at a surrogate Trump, but he was still describing Daisey, a man who could never honestly be mistaken for the troll-handed mogul. There’s “A pleasure that sits in the mouth as you say a hurtful thing,” he says, which may explain, in part, Trump’s dark appeal to a constituency that feels powerless.
Well, that and the performative, ostentatious wealth. Daisey examines Trump’s curious habit of boasting about his Atlantic City casino empire on the campaign trail, despite the fact these gaudy establishments lost vast sums and failed, bringing lots of local suppliers and vendors down with them. “Atlantic City wishes it was Detroit,” Daisey says, saying the dilapidated adult playground “is like a Bruce Springsteen song. Not one of the fun ones. One of the dark ones, from Nebraska.”
I think I know the one he means. A real Guthriesque number. It’s called “Atlantic City.”
Reviewed at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company rehearsal hall, Fri. June 24.