Mike Daisey’s shows are unique experiences. From past observations, tell us how you view him as a performer or what you’re expecting to see.
I’ve seen so many of Daisey’s past monologues at Woolly—The Last Cargo Cult, How Theater Failed America, The Orient Express (Or, the Value of Failure), The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, American Utopias, The Story of the Gun, The Trump Card—I’m a certifiable Daisey-head. The reason I keep going is pretty simple: Over the years I’ve learned that if a topic is worth Daisey’s attention, it’s probably worth mine.
The guy brings his brain, heart, and guts to every topic he unpacks. And (to quote one of his favorite exclamations) it’s fucking amazing. It’s not just that Daisey is a phenomenal storyteller—funny, personal, sardonic, dramatic; you name it, he nails it. It’s that what he chooses to talk about always matters. He’s got some kind of moral/intellectual/political laser that cuts through crap I didn’t even know was there. And in A People’s History, I expect he’ll do no less with the U.S.
You’ve done an unusual amount of research for this show. Tell us about it.
When Daisey was premiering A People’s History at Seattle Rep last year, he shared the recordings with me (and several others) to listen to and write about. Which I did. All 18 chapters, all 30-plus hours worth. And hearing the audio files one after the other, I got so hooked by what he was saying and how he was saying it that when I got to the end I started listening again from the beginning. The scale and scope of what he does is staggering. There isn’t a dull moment. Soon as I learned he’d be bringing A People’s History to DC, I knew I needed to be there.
You will, in effect, be writing reviews of all 18 performances. How will you do that?
I plan to go to every show and write up daily “you-are-there” dispatches—first-person reports on the content of each chapter as well as the live event that each performance becomes. What’s the story arc of the chapter? What’s the temperature in the room? How is the chapter landing? What’s it like to be there? Because I’m pretty certain that Mike Daisey’s A People’s History is going to be one of the hottest theater events of the summer.
What would you say to people who remember Daisey’s unfortunate misrepresentation of his experience in Shenzhen and might consider him a false historian?
About seven years ago, I wrestled with that very question in a post on my Magic Time! blog. For those who don’t recall, NPR notoriously tore into Daisey for his monologue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, in which he dramatized some details of workers he spoke with outside a plant where Apple computers are manufactured. As the scandal simmered, Mike tackled it head on a new monologue that he performed at Woolly Mammoth free, one night only, The Orient Express (Or, the Value of Failure).
I was there, and what I saw was Daisey doing something I had never before seen anyone do on stage much less in life in the personal-ethical arena of thoroughgoing honesty and accountability. I can think of a few prevaricators in government who could have learned a thing or two from Mike’s transparency that night.
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A theme throughout A People’s History is the cumulative lies our leaders tell us, and the lies Americans tell ourselves, that amount to an entitled sense of national exceptionalism—the delusion that the U.S. can do no wrong because its ideals of democracy and freedom are so righteous. Mike Daisey’s A People’s History calls BS on all that. And truthfully, I trust someone to do that who has openly acknowledged his own untruths.
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. He holds masters degrees in public relations and communications from Georgetown University, in theater arts from Columbia University, and in theology and literature from Union Theological Seminary. John has more than four decades of experience working professionally in publishing and graphic communications, and is an accomplished writer in many styles and genres including theater reviews and columns for DC Metro Theater Arts. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.