Go Deeper


Posted May 13th, 2009

Monologuist Mike Daisey will present the world premiere of The Last Cargo Cult at the 2009 Philadelphia Live Arts Festival. Cargo cults sprung up in various South Pacific islands mostly during the Second World War from from encounters with American military personnel and military cargo on these very remote islands. To research the show Mike visited the island of Tanna in the South Pacific, known for its John Frum cult (John Frum is a mythic American serviceman messiah of sorts). When he got back, Mike Daisey wrote some quick notes about his time there, which he originally posted on


1. If someone tells you the reef is “flowering,” it means it has neurotoxins that roll your heart rate down to 30 beats a minute and then kills you. Also, when people call a place “Shark Bay” it is not figurative–it means there are many sharks, which you can see from the shore.

2. Kava is prepared by the plant being chewed by prepubescent boys, and then the pulpy mess is spat in a bowl, which is mixed with questionable water and then drunk. It tastes much like this description would imply.

3. When the volcano explodes, you can see the shockwaves in the air rushing toward you in the moment before it strikes you, and then the sound that follows. It is like God has punched you, or His hand is bursting up through the earth.

4. The John Frum celebrations are long: this year’s lasted nine hours, with a dinner break in the middle . . . from morning until nearly dusk. They act out scenes, a kind of living theater, with history of the island, America and other sources intermingled into a tremendous soap opera.

5. The many pieces of molten lava bursting from the volcano are the size of refrigerators and Volkswagen bugs. If one hits you the size won’t be the issue, or even fire . . . the heat is so intense that you would disintegrate. This has happened to visitors recently.

6. The Friday night celebrations, when the John Frum dance and sing all night til dawn under the deep night sky reflecting off Sulphur Bay, lit by the red glow of the volcano standing above the village like an angry God, is unforgettable. This I will carry to my grave.

7. When hunting a wild pig for dinner, you have to strike the pig solidly on the side of the head to knock them down, and then beat them with the pole until dead or dazed . . . then someone will slit the throat and finish the job.

8. A villager showed me his sacred Snoop Dogg amulet, I met people who worship Prince Philip of England as a risen god, and I talked with a man who had been taken by a documentary crew to New York City. He told me what he dreamed about, and the whole village sat together in silence, everyone naked except for penis sheaths and stone-age implements, listening to his stories of an alien land.

9. I spent a day with students at a school without water or power, where every book is a rare blessing . . . but confounding expectation, one out of every four had a cell phone. They charge them with solar chargers, like to play snake, and IM their friends to get together.

10. I learned a tremendous amount, made some lasting friendships, and reached across worlds just a bit. When I think about how alien this place seemed just weeks ago to me, I am surprised at my ignorance. It is an excellent lesson, and I am already missing this mysterious, primal island that has helped me a little to see our ordinary world in a new light.

–Mike Daisey

Photos by Mike Daisey.