Go Deeper

The Last Cargo Cult: Q&A with Mike Daisey

Posted September 10th, 2009

I talked to Mike Daisey in this space last week about his show How Theater Failed America, which I finally was able to see on Sunday. It blew me away. But its run is over.

Never fear! You can still catch his next show, The Last Cargo Cult, which premieres tonight as part of the Live Arts Festival. Mike’s monologue will take you from the financial capital of the world to the South Pacific and back again, while tackling the financial crisis, material obsessions, and currency as an act of faith.

For those of us who don’t know (and I didn’t until I learned about the show): What is a cargo cult?
A cargo cult is a phenomenon where isolated islands in the South Pacific, which had very little contact with the outside world and had only Stone Age technology, suddenly had military bases built on them during WWII. Overnight the natives encountered airstrips, planes, chocolate, refrigerators, radios and all the amazing cargo we create in the first world.

After the jump: the cargo disappears, cultic consumers as cultic, and what is money, anyway?

Then the cargo went away—the war ended, the bases closed and all this magical stuff left. Almost immediately the people of the islands started to worship America . . . but more precisely, they worshipped the power of America, by worshipping the objects of America, in order to summon them back to the island.

Where exactly is Tanna, how do you get there, and who lives there?
Tanna is a small island in the Vanuatu island chain, which used to be known as the New Hebrides. It is roughly 1,500 miles east of Australia, in the heart of the South Pacific. It has an ever-erupting volcano, and at the base of that volcano is the last cargo cult in the world, whom I lived with while on the island to attend their celebration, which they hold once a year, where they tell the history of America in dance, theater, and song.

In How Theater Failed America, you interweaved your personal history—working in theater, battling depression, struggling to find your dramatic mien—with your critiques of theater not as it’s not practiced, per se, but more as it’s operated today. Will something similar be at work in The Last Cargo Cult as you approach the financial crisis?
Yes— always interweave my stories into the threads of the monologues, and I think it’s an integral element in what makes them work. My story is present because if I can’t turn inward and examine the connections in my own life, it’s impossible to forge something that evokes from audiences what I want: a combination of comedy and tragedy that pulls us up toward catharsis.

Were there similarities between the practices of the cargo cult and American culture?
In some ways we are very closely aligned—we both crave the objects of the first world, and we crave them because of their transformative powers. At the same time we’re both wary of how these gifts transform our lives once we possess them.

At the same time we’re wildly different because their dominant religion and way of life is kastom, which is a word encompassing their life without money of any kind—a communal system based on human relationships. Our religion and way of life is money, and they are extremely different mindsets.

Why is currency an act of faith? And why don’t we find that more disturbing?
Currency is an act of faith because it has no value except for the value we believe it has—our money is not tied to anything other than itself. It’s worthless, except that we all agree to have faith that it does have worth. Our religion insists that it is valuable, and we cleave to that through practice of our faith, and the ritual of exchanging money each and every day.

Tell me about where you’re headed after Philadelphia.
After Philadelphia we head to Playmakers in Chapel Hill for a week of shows, then on a tour of the Great North—Alaska, the Yukon, and up beyond the Arctic Circle to do shows in some communities we don’t normally reach. Many of them can’t be reached by car—it should be an adventure. Then later this fall we have an Australian tour, and finally in December The Last Cargo Cult will run off-Broadway at the Public Theater.

Are you excited to bring an examination of the global financial system and the tales of one tiny place to another? Especially when that other has seen some pretty dramatic boom and bust cycles of its own?
I am excited. I think that the current climate helps people to question the dominant paradigm, and opens up opportunities to look at how our culture lives and breathes—whether everything should have a price or not, for example. In all the flurry of fear over the economy we fail to talk about the deepest questions of what money is, and how our systems work, and that’s what I’m excited to unearth with people.

The Last Cargo Cult opens tonight at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, home of the Philadelphia Theatre Company, 480 S. Broad St., and runs through Sunday, September 13.

–Nicholas Gilewicz

Photo by Mike Daisey.