Performing Arts


Now the story of one man who traveled to a small island in the South Pacific just to make a point about America. Mike Daisey is a solo theater performer whose work has been called electrifying and brilliant. As NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, his latest piece is about cargo cults.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: Cargo cults in the South Pacific began after World War II. During the war, thousands of Allied forces set up military bases on remote islands. They brought with them modern amenities like radios, jeeps, refrigerators. And then they left, taking their goods with them.

(Soundbite of show, "The Last Cargo Cult")

Mr.�MIKE DAISEY (Theater Performer): And in that moment, when they were on these islands, the want of the islanders crystallized.

BLAIR: In his new show, "The Last Cargo Cult," Mike Daisey talks about how, for tribal societies, this was like magic.

(Soundbite of show, "The Last Cargo Cult")

Mr.�DAISEY: And so when they left, all over the South Pacific, independent of each other, religions sprang up that worshipped America, or more accurately worshipped the power of America, worshipped the objects of America.

BLAIR: To this day, the people of the island Tanna try to summon back the Americans and their objects in an annual celebration called John Frum Day. And last year, around the time the global markets were crashing, Mike Daisey read an article about this cargo cult and decided to go there because it seemed like a place that was beyond the reach of money.

Mr.�DAISEY: And it was at that moment that I realized that I needed to go to this island, but I had to do it because of what was happening in my culture.

BLAIR: Now as a performer, Mike Daisey is quite large, physically and emotionally. Getting to this remote little island in the South Pacific was not easy for him.

(Soundbite of show, "The Last Cargo Cult")

Mr.�DAISEY: And this plane is a joke. It looks like the punch line to a joke about planes. You look at it, and you think: Really?

BLAIR: But he got there and was able to attend the John Frum Day celebration. Daisey says thousands of people attend.

Mr.�DAISEY: It's actually very breathtaking. There's this beautiful silence, and they raise a huge American flag up a flagpole. And then they begin to tell the story of the history of America as they know it to be, woven together with their own history, in these massive dances that have hundreds hundreds of people. They put Broadway to shame.

BLAIR: Some history, social commentary, comedy and autobiography: That's what you get in a Mike Daisey monologue. Jason Zinoman, a theater critic for the New York Times, calls him a master storyteller. Zinoman says Daisey might not like this, but he sees similarities between him and Fox News commentator Glenn Beck.

Mr.�JASON ZINOMAN (Theater Critic, New York Times): And I say that with generosity because I think Glenn Beck is a great performer. One of the things that, you know, Glenn Beck does is he tells several different narratives, and then they intersect in these unusual ways. And he makes these connections between seemingly disparate things, and that's what Mike Daisey does.

(Soundbite of show, "The Last Cargo Cult")

Mr.�DAISEY: I remember the moment I realized I was poor.

BLAIR: Daisey's monologues almost always refer back to his growing up in a working-class community in far northern Maine.

(Soundbite of show, "The Last Cargo Cult")

Mr.�DAISEY: Then as my father is fond of saying: Maine is like Mexico with white people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr.�DAISEY: And that's why it's called vacation land because every summer, all the landed gentry of New England flood up to Maine, and they say oh my God, it's all so quaint. And it's so cheap. And the people are so cheap and they're the same color as we are.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr.�DAISEY: So it isn't awkward.

BLAIR: In his current show, Mike Daisey connects what he calls Americans' worship of money to a cargo cult. As an artist, Daisey says he doesn't make a lot of money, but he does think about it every day. In his show, he says the balance in his bank account is the single most important number in his life.

Mr.�DAISEY: All money is power. All power corrupts. But we can't go through life most of us can't, I know I can't - go through life totally divorced from money. I need money. In fact, I love money. At the same time, I have to recognize that the more money I have, the more it corrupts.

BLAIR: Something Mike Daisey says the people he met on a remote island in the South Pacific are aware of, even as they like us worship what it might bring.

Over the next few months, Mike Daisey is performing "The Last Cargo Cult" at theaters in Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Chicago.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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