|Mike Daisey ready to begin (Angela Nickerson)|
A People’s History
Seattle Repertory Theatre
Through November 25, 2018
Mike Daisey has an uncanny ability to cut subject matter down to bite-sized incisive bits of information. If you have never heard him opine, you owe it to yourself to pay a visit, at least once, to his current sit-down at Seattle Repertory Theatre!
This iteration, in A People’s History, Mike has decided to compare, in his roundabout, talk-about-everything-at-once way of discussing, his own public school history education during high school (the textbook used in his classroom) to Howard Zinn’s seminal book, “A People’s History of the United States.” He started, with Chapter 1, in 1492 when Christopher Columbus “sailed the ocean blue” over toward the New World. He’ll end, 18 specific performances later, in 2018. He says that is 27 hours of planned speaking, but those who attend Daisey performances know his 90 minute events are often at least 15 minutes longer. (There are 18 monologues; these are the "chapters"; they repeat once each during the run of this Seattle production.)
“Opening night” was about the turn of the 20th Century (Chapter 8 of the series) when politics was surprisingly similar to 2018! Businesses were owned by oligarchs (says Daisey), the 8-hour day was still decades from common use, social welfare programs were only NON-governmental (until the Great Depression), children worked for hours every day since there were no child labor laws. Women did not vote or own property! White men were clearly in control.
Daisey relates that Taylorism came into being when a man named Taylor published a book in 1911 about mechanizing workers’ lives, observing and documenting laborers’ movements, and reducing laborers into “labor” and into commodities that could be interchanged.
He then relates that this period became about resistance. Daisey suggests that the fact that workers could work in more densely populated factory conditions and the fact that they could talk to each other gave rise to sharing of information and experiences. So, perhaps those discussions included discussing the economic construct of “socialism.” These workers likely felt the weight of The Man on their backs quite keenly!
From there, Daisey discusses unionization and reminds us of why we have the regulations we have today, protecting workers’ rights, creating the “weekend” we know now. But he also dives into the corruption of the union bosses and how that system worked together, too.
This is a taste of where Daisey started Chapter 8. Chapter 8 repeats on November 15th. Each of the 18 chapters repeats once in this cycle. Daisey’s shows always, these days (I haven’t seen every single one, but quite a few), have a table, some minor set decoration – in this case a large map of the United States with radiating pin-pointed lines, some water, a cloth for wiping his face, and his notes for the evening. He sits down and begins.
Daisey has a wide-ranging intellect and curiosity and a voracious appetite for research. Then he regurgitates it to us in a measured unhyperbolic manner, and sprinkles in a few jokes. Maybe they aren’t jokes – they’re just comments that are timed to sound funny!
He also certainly points at himself and his likely-mostly-white audience and includes us in the culpability of the white culture we inhabit. If you feel fragile about that, you won’t enjoy that at all – but it’s clearly time that we wake up to our privilege, and he’s a guy who will help do that.
While sitting and talking to the audience is more toward the fringes of “theater,” it embodies the tradition of entertainments of old, the “sitting around a camp fire talking” kind of event. Regardless, somehow Daisey makes it riveting! His talents, apart from his ability to synthesize on our behalf, include an uncanny ability to keep our attention while “doing” nothing but talking. It’s why he’s celebrated around the country.
If you have been feeling like wandering around begging people to “explain our current situation” to you, you can do no better than to attend and listen! In this case, to listen a LOT, you’ll need to come back to the theater a number of times and pay an additional $25 each time. But in any one evening, you’ll walk away with at least a nugget or two of more refined thinking courtesy Daisey’s distillation.