We Americans are the First World, we may have recently forgotten. We set standards emulated often enough by an entire planet. Those Lesser Worlds continue to look at us. Heaven help them, convincingly argues one playwright in town.
If you or anyone in your household doesn’t know what a “cargo cult” is, Google it. And if that’s the case, resign yourself to be mad, once again, that your high school U.S. history teacher took too long on the material leading up to World War II to cover adequately the second half of the 20th century in class.
The Last Cargo Cult, which closes this Sunday (April 11), is actually performance art, not theater. To use one of Daisey’s well-placed words, there will be awkward moments, not the least of which will be experienced among the multitudinous four-letter words. While at times painful in the worst way that the worst theatrical performances can be, Daisey has heart and ultimately knows both what he is doing and what he wants his captive audience to do. The playwright’s partly outlined, partly stream-of-consciousness monologue still struggles. For the most part, Daisey holds it together: A wide man spouting impassioned pleas below hot theater lights is a sweaty man, and we feel the pain this “financial crisis” has caused him.
As Daisey ruminates to us, we are living a morality play. Unfortunately, we don’t know we are (in our defense, who ever is that self-aware?). Regrettably still, as he posits, we can’t choose any easy route out, such as … say f— the bankers, let their house burn down, because, wait now, we’re actually in the adjacent room, in the very same house. Which is, after all, a house of cards, of course.
Wake up, America.
The freedom Daisey exhibits on-stage should encourage his audience to do more creative thinking of their own, in regard to personal finances and national economics. To encourage us, Daisey has brought along some instructive props.
(Warning: spoiler ahead.)
As the audience enters the downstairs Hertz Stage at the Alliance Theatre in Midtown Atlanta, an usher hands each person an actual bill of U.S. currency. Flash forward to the final 10 minutes of the production, at which point Daisey brings up the currency. It turns out the playwright/actor has given us his keep for the night. He’s creatively taken what the theater would’ve paid him and divvied it up among us — undemocratically. Some have been given $100 bills, others $20, others $10, and still others $1. But why, Daisey speaks our mind aloud, are some of us given $100, while others a much smaller amount? Why, he answers himself, is everyone not born in America? Then, he tells us, we can deposit the bills in the fish bowl on the way out, or do whatever we wish. The choice is ours, although he does have to eat.
To summarize a bit more much that Daisey goes “off” on: In this country, finance is our religion. Abstraction rules our society — remember the Gold Standard, anyone? Tightly bound relationships across the city and state and globe prop it all up.
“This looks like my garage,” the elderly woman sitting next to me told me after I asked if the adjacent seat were taken. “My, you must love Crate & Barrel and Ikea,” I thought to myself. The rows of cardboard boxes with varying retail logos fill an entire wall of the theater, literally putting in our face the gluttony we try to hide in our basements, garages, and attics so unconvincingly.
Even those who preach detachment today, Daisey reminds us, are doing so by writing books on the subject. How’s that for walking a talk?
Despite the long-winded asides of the somewhat impromptu 120-minute monologue, I still wish I had caught Mike Daisey’s one-night-only performance of How Theater Failed America earlier this month, also at the Alliance Theatre. From what I’ve read, Daisey’s strong feelings on the subject compare favorably with those of current Atlanta resident Jasmine Guy, profiled in a recent Creative Loafing article.
It is all troubling commentary on the larger society we choose to live in, the society we allow to be the way it is. Deep topics, yes. They all make for awkward moments, to use Daisey’s word, but we’re not done with this “financial crisis” yet.
With all due respect to other individuals and institutions, The Last Cargo Cult may be the most thought-provoking, professional, off-Broadway theater New York has let slip south in a mighty long time.
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Your last chance to catch The Last Cargo Cult is approaching. The play runs through this Sunday, April 11 at the Alliance Theatre (Hertz Stage) at the Woodruff Arts Center, Midtown Atlanta. More information is available at www.alliancetheatre.org.