Monologuist Mike Daisey and the last cargo cult

The talented New York-based monologuist Mike Daisey performs his dark, hilarious work in a format similar to the one perfected by the late Spalding Gray: a spare stage, a simple table, a glass of water, and some notes.

Daisey, who is an acquaintance of mine, just got back from a remote South Pacific island called Tanna, where he was researching the John Frum cargo cult, the last cargo cult in the world. Daisey is developing a new monologue about the experience and did a preliminary workshop in L.A. earlier this month.

If you’re not familiar with the concept, cargo cults flourished in isolated areas during and after the second World War, when indigenous peoples that had come in contact with the American military developed rituals intended to entice the powerful American gods to come back. In an email to his mailing-list subscribers before he left, Daisey described cargo cults this way:

The religion revolves around the worship of American power, and the summoning of America’s power back to the island through sympathetic magic. Islanders enact rituals where they wear whiteface and create costumes that look like military uniforms, and sit at bamboo tables to “type” on bamboo recreations of typewriters … because they saw American servicemen doing the same, and it made the cargo come, and with it the power of America.

In a quick blog post soon after he got back, he wrote about some of his experiences, including these:

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.

Daisey first gained fame for 21 Dog Years, a book and monologue about his experiences working for during the dot-com boom. (Not long after that, Lorne Michaels considered him for a cast slot on Saturday Night Live, but nothing ultimately came of it.) Daisey’s recent monologues include If You See Something, Say Something, about the cold war and the Department of Homeland Security, and How Theater Failed America, a harsh and controversial critique. He performs regularly around the country and overseas, so make sure you catch him when he’s near you.