The Last Cargo Cult
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 5, 2009
In his new monologue The Last Cargo Cult, Mike Daisey tells two stories. One—which gives the show its title—is an account of his recent visit to the island of Tanna, which is part of the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu. The other concerns another recent, though much less faraway journey, when he went to Southampton, Long Island, to perform an (apparently earlier) version of this show. Tying the two tales together is the idea of money, in particular how powerful a force it can be in human affairs, for better and, mostly, for worse.
There are really just a few important things you need to know about The Last Cargo Cult. First, its performer, Mike Daisey, continues to become one of our foremost storytellers. He's a spellbinder, and also a terrific actor. In this show, he sits alone on stage at the Newman Theatre (the largest space at the Public), and armed only with his three signature props—a glass of water, a black handkerchief, and some sheets of paper from a yellow legal pad that contain his notes—he keeps the large audience riveted for close to two hours. The stories he spins for us are sometimes long and elaborate anecdotes filled with telling details described in vivid language and choice, unexpected imagery; and other times he pulls us off on a tangent that's delicious in its particulars though possibly mystifying in its ultimate significance, only to bring us back to his main theme. He's funny and entirely self-assured as our guide; he uses his expert language, his remarkable rubbery face, his expressive hands, and his dexterous vocal patterns to show us, say, a well-educated female Vanuatu native seated next to him during a complicated native ritual, or to economically and hilariously re-create the conversation he and his wife had when their rental car got bashed from behind in a freeway accident.
The next thing you need to know is that while the storytelling aspects of The Last Cargo Cult are never less than fascinating, the ideas underlying the show constitute more a rant about the recession and its causes than a well-reasoned analysis of same. Daisey is channeling the collective anger that has seemed, on occasion, so close to boiling over in this country: he's mad as hell about bankers and brokers who make vast fortunes without actually producing anything real or tangible, and about our government and society's still-insufficient response to the problems eating away at our economic stability. Listening to him skewer these and other targets can feel good, but there's nothing in his show that suggests an actionable alternative. Not that we should expect one: Daisey is a performer, not an economist or statesman.
My final observation about The Last Cargo Cult has to do with the one aspect that truly disappointed me. Daisey visited a remote place that almost no American has ever even heard of let alone seen, but though he has brought back some colorful reminiscences about penis sheaths and the ritual hunt of a wild pig in the Tanna forest, Daisey ultimately provides us with very little information about the people he met during his trip and what their exotic culture, so different from our own, is really like. I would have liked to know more about how these people, in many ways still so untouched by the contrivances of what we call modern civilization, live. Are they better off than us in important ways? Are they worse off than us in important ways? Daisey doesn't really say; I sensed less curiosity on his part about them than I expected. Most surprising is that Daisey doesn't ever really explain what his show's title signifies. Tanna, he says, is the site of a religious group that worships America, but he never fills in the back story of why or how. (That story is absolutely fascinating; read this and this.)
Daisey does make it clear that the imposition of Western culture on the people of Tanna (and so many others throughout what we now call the Third World) was cataclysmic; this is the most significant takeaway I got from the show. One of the ways the British and French enforced control over their native colonists was to require them to use money; Daisey plays with this idea in a gimmicky coda to his show, making each audience member decide how much the experience we just had is "worth" in hard cash—a gambit that is in every way as manipulative as what the British and French did to the Tanna people.