Daily Dispatches from Mike Daisey’s ‘A People’s History’

Daily Dispatches from Mike Daisey's 'A People's History'

Chapter 5: The Manifest Destiny, July 7 8pm

Mike Daisey had just begun reading an 1845 letter from a soldier who was being deployed the Texas-Mexico border for what could turn ugly—when rudely a rogue cell phone went off. Daisey stopped cold and gave the offender a withering look. (You don’t want to be That Audience Member.) When the phone was finally silenced, he ad-libbed a hilarious rejoinder and started over, this time with the audience volubly on his side.

The soldier’s sobering letter concluded: “Violence leads to violence, and if this movement of ours does not lead to others and to bloodshed, I am much mistaken.”  And we were off and running in a gripping tale of how America takes power.

Spoiler alert, per Daisey: The American national psyche is “schizoid.” On the one hand, America likes to think of itself as a peace-loving upholder of democracy. On the other hand, America routinely wages imperialist wars on duplicitous pretexts.

“Mexican Cession.” Not ceded.

Case in point: “Manifest Destiny,” the ideology that America was entitled by God to seize land all the way to the Pacific shore. But mainly, as Daisey explained, it was a genocidal, racist campaign that entailed some really messed-up wheeling and dealing.

Mexico at the time included what’s now Texas, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, California, and part of Colorado. Mexico had recently become independent of Spain, as America had become independent of England. But rather than play well with another former colony, America determined to conquer and claim as much of Mexico as it could, by means of a war of invasion. America expanded its empire, but America does not think of itself as an empire. No no, that’s not a good look. So instead America said to Mexico: We’ll “buy” all that land from you, and you’ll say you “sell” it to us, and then you’ll sign an NDA and assure the world there was no conquering.

It was a CYA deal made in bad faith, the currency of then and now. Manifest Destiny, said Daisey, was MAGA the first.

Daisey always hated history because it never made any sense. The American Pageant (his high school history text) told everything in terms of wars and great white men; there was no credible through-line to explain why one thing happened after another; there was only gratuitous triumphalism. But the more Daisey uncovered in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States about the way America keeps denying its genocidal and racist past, the clearer the connective storyline became. “The culture is having a neurotic response to hiding from what it has done.”

The South always knew blacks were human beings, said Daisey, but pretended they were not. Daisey quoted a former slave named John Little:

They say slaves are happy, because they laugh, and are merry. I myself and three or four others, have received two hundred lashes in the day, and had our feet in fetters; yet, at night, we would sing and dance, and make others laugh at the rattling of our chains…. We did it … to keep our hearts from being completely broken.

Sojourner Truth. Not on the $20 bill.

And Daisey quoted Sojourner Truth:

I know that it feels a kind o’hissin’ and tickiin’ like to see a colored woman get up and tell you about things, and Woman’s Rights. We have all been thrown down so low that nobody thought we’d ever get up again; but . . . we will come up again, and now I’m here. . . . we’ll have our rights; see if we don’t; and you can’t stop us from them; see if you can. You may hiss as much as you like, but it is comin’.

“It hurts to grapple with our racism and sexism,” said Daisey, and by “our” he means not only America’s but his own as a white man. “Our structure for masculinity is constructed to be unaccountable,” he said, describing how easily men check out of conversations when feelings of empathy and/or accountability are called for. “It’s very hard,” he said, “to construct an identity with moral/ethical weight.”

Today “fascism is on the rise” and America’s moral/ethical identity is still encumbered by its racist, sexist past. “We like to feel good about ourselves—but do nothing.”

In a lyrically philosophical passage, Daisey reflected: “Human life has meaning because we give it meaning—believing in our ability to humanly connect. And won’t we want to have stood up and lived for something?”

Coming next in Chapter 6: The 35-year runup to World War I, the beginning of the labor movement, the introduction of socialism, and the formation of corporations.

To be continued. Watch this space for updates. Or better yet, check out a chapter for yourself in person.


Chapter 4: The Blind Spot, July 7 2pm

Mike Daisey’s monologues typically have a personal, autobiographical angle, but today’s look at the history of America had nearly as much history of himself. And his artful interweaving of the two kept the audience in stitches and introspection.

Daisey began with an extended story about a self-inflicted eye injury, which required him to wear an eyepatch. (Cue the Arrr!s and pirate jokes.) This turned into a riff on humans’ literal blind spot where the ocular nerve hits the retina, a vision gap the mind accommodates by cloning in what’s around it. From this physiological “design flaw,” Daisey spun what became the thematic metaphor for the show: the many ways we have of being oblivious to and not thinking about things, such as the erasure of women and people of color and the nation’s origin in genocide and slavery. “You can’t see your blind spot,” he said.

Admitting that he embarked on this monologue project “to wrestle with my demons,” Daisey proceeded to share as a straight white man his own blind spots—and one could sense an earnest attempt to model an ethical self-awareness that might inspire others. At times Daisey even critiqued himself and other men with such over-the-top ruthlessness one was not sure whether he was serious: “When you assess what men have done, how can you not think that men should be dead?”

Doubling down on the point, he reenacted a disturbing Twitter exchange he’d just read this morning between a woman innocently trying to sell an iPhone and a man posing as a buyer who got all rageful and rapey when she refused to tell him where she lived.

Today, Daisey said, many people believe women are not human and many men think they own women’s bodies. But there was a time on this continent when Native women were treated with respect. They could be leaders, they could fight to defend themselves, they did not live in fear of rape. That culture was eliminated when First peoples were exterminated.

Daisey read a passage that in 1632 passed for “feminism,” a prescription for marriage in which the wife, like a small brook, loses her name and is incorporated into a river, her superior and her master.

A slight change was on the way. When women began to work in mills, no longer isolated in homes, they started to talk together with other women. This began what became the labor union movement. Women also became active in the anti-slavery movement. Daisey described the World Anti-Slavery Society Convention in 1840 in London where the men told the women they had to stay inside a curtained enclosure. The women sat in silent protest in the gallery, and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison joined them. “At this one meeting, we may have found the one good man,” cracked Daisey.

As this particularly free-form, free-associational chapter unfolded, Daisey became ever more candid about his own struggle to be a good man.  At one point he told of a painful divorce that prompted him to do work on himself and his sexism. But first it pitched him into a depression. Contemplating suicide, he took off driving in a rented car with no return date. He didn’t know if he’d be back.

Signing of an Indian treaty. Not honored.

As it happened, he drove into an Indian reservation—at which point his conscientious storytelling kicks in and he resumed his narrative of America, in particular its appalling treatment of Indians. Never has America honored a treaty, Daisey said. “We are experts at bad faith. This is is how we treated people; this is American exceptionalism”—meaning that “the current president has actually institutionalized a return to traditional values.”

Trump, Daisey explained, is very like Andrew Jackson, the president Zinn called “the most aggressive enemy of Indians in early American history.” Both white men built political power on a populism fueled by racism.

Daisey ended on a topic that he will likely return to: What is happening to our planet. The climate conflagration. The fact that when temperatures at the Equator rise just a few more degrees, it will become uninhabitable, resulting in the most massive migration in human history. And right now that impending climate catastrophe and immigration crisis is dead center in our national blind spot.

To be continued. Watch this space for updates. Or better yet, check out a chapter for yourself in person.


Chapter 3: The Skin Of All Your Teeth, July 6 8pm

Outside the nautical windows that wrap around Arena’s three theaters, there was such thunder, lightning, and drenching rain that the pre-show scene in the Kogod lobby seemed like being in a ship in a storm at sea. That did not dampen the spirits of the sold-out Saturday night crowd that had come for Chapter 3, however. To the contrary, the ominous weather made for the liveliest house yet—which in turn brought out in Mike Daisey’s performance even more entertaining animation than usual.

As many have noted, Daisey is a magnetic performer. From behind a simple desk he holds audiences in the palms of his hands. And last night his hilarious knack for cartoonlike vocal mimicry and rubber-faced comic masks was killing it.

Fireworks were an evocative motif, beginning with the Fourth of July in DC. Daisey has been staying at a hotel that was full of pro-Trump families who had come to town for what Daisey called “a salute to fascism.” He riffed on the “male-pattern explosions” of fireworks, which are “like having sex with a man”—a line that got knowing laughs in the upper register. Later he flashed back to an eighth-grade trip he took to Montreal where he watched a very different kind of fireworks display with a girl in his class who, he was rattled to learn, was into him—and he didn’t know what to do about it. Meanwhile the fireworks that night were memorably not ejaculatory but instead seemed seen “through a lens of queer women.”

The chunk of history Daisey took on was the Revolutionary War, which lasted ten years and was fought by white men in armed militias who didn’t really have skin in the game—unlike the oligarchs who profited from slaveholding and were calling the shots because they wanted to keep for themselves the money they sent England in taxes.

At the time, every town had a militia and most white men had guns—which had been needed, Daisey reminded us, for “genociding a continent.” The wealthy got out of service. The poorest people died in the war. It was not the noble campaign for freedom pop history makes it out to be.

Daisey quoted Alexander Hamilton, by then a wealthy elitist: “Our countrymen have all the folly of the ass and all the passiveness of the sheep. They are determined not to be free.”

“Is that in the show?” Daisey asked innocently.

Daisey’s takedown of the megahit musical came up again later when he shocked many in the audience with the fact that during the drafting of the Constitution Hamilton advocated that the president and senators serve for life  “so there is not too much democracy.” He was “a dick,” Daisey declared, to some approving applause. And the musical itself is “patriotic propaganda.” It is cast with people of color and omits mention of slavery. That’s why so many white people like it so much. It’s a comfort to American triumphalism. Oh snap.

George Washington’s dentures. Not wood.

At another point, the audience was audibly shocked to learn that George Washington did not have wooden teeth, as the tale is often told. His dentures were in fact made from teeth pulled from the mouths of his living black slaves—a readily documentable fact ignored and denied by white historians for decades.

As Daisey did last chapter, he posed a question he first asked his high school history teacher, who had no satisfactory answer: Why was there a Constitution (a dry document mostly about taxation) and then years later a Bill of Rights (which has all the good parts)? Turns out when oligarchs wrote and tried to pass the Constitution (drafted mainly to protect their economic interests), it failed. Landed white men objected and protested, demanded the freedoms they’d been promised, and held the oligarchs’ feet to the fire.

The oligarchs relented and wrote the Bill of Rights, which not incidentally secured the right to gun ownership that white male militia members feared the oligarchs would take away. And why were the guns there in the first place? They were necessary to enslave Africans and genocide Indians. So “of course we have a gun problem.”

The story arc of this chapter, like those preceding, was not only a critique about then; it was an exhortation about now. Early on Daisey had said, “the dominant political party is the party of apathy” and “the most powerful political philosophy is nihilism.” People have retreated into a belief that “nothing matters.”

Meanwhile liberal white people—whose “ethics are situational”—”will do the right thing if it doesn’t cost them anything.”

Typically Daisey ends his chapters with a lyrical wrapup that lifts aloft everything that went before and places it in the mind like a koan or poem. And last night’s liftoff/sendoff was amazing. He went back to the story he told about him and Danielle, two dorks secretly crushing on each other, and his cowardice and paralysis in not reciprocating Danielle’s move on him under the fireworks—a nonresponse that he now realizes hurt her very much. Somehow—and this is classic Daisey—he connected that eighth-grade failure of personal nerve to his audience’s place in the present political moment. We—and Daisey is always clear to include himself—”do not want to think about knowledge that means we have to do something about it.”

To be continued. Watch this space for updates. Or better yet, check out a chapter for yourself in person.


Chapter 2: The Revolution That Wasn’t, July 6 2pm

The matinee crowd arrived early so as to get good seats (not a bad idea, since the show’s general admission). By the end—having been regaled for 90 minutes with tales of resistance to all that was “bullshit and fucked up” in Colonial and contemporary America—ardent audience members gave Mike Daisey a standing O and lined up for tickets to future chapters.

The theme was rebellions, riots, and uprisings that failed because they were quashed—of which there were dozens—and Daisey’s eye-opening lowdown on the so-called American Revolution.

Daisey segued disarmingly and jovially between vivid episodes of protest then and now. He joked about the Baby Trump balloon seen Thursday on the Mall (“better than he deserved”). And he brought in the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement that followed the financial collapse when banks got bailouts (“corporate welfare”). Friends of his, he told us, were brutally injured when cops busted up the “Fuck capitalism” encampment in Zuccotti Park (and kept news media away).

Bacon’s Rebellion. Quashed.

Significantly, he cited Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 as an instance of white indentured servants and black slaves joining forces—a confluence that was a clear and present danger to the white male slaveholding oligarchs in charge. In Daisey’s telling, “The alliance between indentured servants and slaves had to be stopped, so power did what power always does; it divides”—in this case pitting white against black by treating whites marginally better than blacks. With this calculated “hierarchy of misery,” the filthy rich literally invented American racism.

Relatedly, Daisey dealt with the “political invisibility” of women. There were laws at the time against rape and battery in public. The law paid no mind if it happened at home. Daisey read this as evidence that somewhere inside the seemingly soulless wealthy white men who made the laws, they knew there was something wrong with woman abuse, otherwise why not permit it anywhere?

A slave revolt. Quashed.

The biggest news flash was Daisey’s answer to his own question: Why if so many rebellions, riots, and uprisings in the Colonies failed did the American Revolution succeed? It was, after all, solely a protest against England’s excessive taxation, which affected only the minuscule percentage of the population who were oligarchs. Everyone else was either an indentured servant or a slave, none of whom paid taxes. Turns out the owning class pretty much conned the hoi polloi into taking up arms against the Crown on their behalf. After the dust had settled and wealthy white men penned the Declaration of Independence, 68 percent of the signers already held positions of power in Colonial government. Unlike the French Revolution, which was a real revolution (the aristocracy lost their heads), the American Revolution was not a real revolution at all. “It was,” said Daisey, “more of a corporate takeover.”

Reiterating his point from Chapter 1 that genocide and racism were “the bloodbath that is the birth of the nation,” Daisey stressed that then as now oligarchs keep the United States as unequal as possible, righting wrongs only when concerted action by the powerless makes power uncomfortable.

A current running through the chapters so far is “We knew. We could have done something.” For the second time in closing, he mentioned the concentration camps now at our southern border. Mike Daisey’s A People’s History is looking to be not just the essential history lesson we all missed but also an invigorating kick in the butt.

To be continued. Watch this space for updates. Or better yet, check out a chapter for yourself in person.


Chapter 1: The Gold Earring, July 5 8pm

Mike Daisey’s marathon retort to Trump’s Fourth of July “Salute to America” kicked off in the Kogod Cradle last night before a sold-out crowd. Daisey’s storytelling modulated masterfully between the hilarious and the horrific and the audience was by turns laughing aloud and stunned into silence.

Daisey sat stage center at a table, in front of him an ironic nameplate (“Mr. Daisey, U.S. History”), to his right a polished apple, and to his left two sourcebooks: his 1983 high school history text, The American Pageant, which he would call the default propaganda, and Howard Zinn’s 2002 A People’s History of the United States, which he would cite throughout as what really went down.

After some diverting preliminaries—including a funny riff on Star Trek (from which we learn, he joked, “there are a lot of white people in space”)—Daisey took us back to what happened one crisp fall day in October of 1492 when Christopher Columbus (‘the Captain Kirk of his time”) and his intrepid crew of white men made “first contact” with the Arawak people. It did not go well for the Arawak and other indigenous residents of the continent, tens of millions of whom would shortly be genocided.

The title of the night’s chapter refers to a golden earring that Columbus espied on a young Arawak woman, from which he inferred he’d come to a land where gold was plentiful. The capitalist in Captain Columbus then seized what he saw as a lucrative opportunity. Said Daisey: “Columbus was a dick,” akin to the “asshole” Trump. Across hundreds of years, “they speak to each other.”

Daisey dramatically took us through, step by disturbing step, how the exploitation and extermination incited by white men’s greed for gold began, and one could hear the soundlessness of the audience taking in the mounting horror—which Daisey assured us he was editing down drastically.

“Columbus meeting Indians.” Not how it happened.

“Systematic genocide is the beating heart of American exceptionalism” was one of the big takeaways of the night. And, Daisey emphasized, “it wasn’t inevitable. There were other choices.” It was a conscious decision made by white men from post-Renaissance Europe who were “good people” but who “took the darkest path.”

Taking a breather from the breathtaking atrocities, Daisey took us on a delightful tangent to his teenage years growing up in northern Maine. It was welcome comic relief, and it had the audience roaring at Daisey’s geeky shenanigans. This insertion of himself into the story of America turned out to be a motif central to Daisey’s storytelling technique: a deliberately self-referential point of view as “a straight white man” who was “descended from genociders.”

Daisey was candid about hating American history in his school years. It was boring. It made no sequential sense. Women and people of color were for the most part erased. But when Daisey realized that “vast systematic genocide is the progenitive event that makes sense of history,” something clicked into place. The plot thickened. Which is to say, a followable plot had begun.

Near of the end of the chapter, Daisey introduced another calamitous instance of white male pride in cahoots with capitalism. After the hostile invaders learned of tobacco from the first residents, they began a slave trade to obtain the labor needed to work the fields to raise the crops that could be sold to nicotine-heads in Europe. By 1800 there were tens of millions of African slaves in the country, and countless millions of African bodies lost in passage now at the bottom of the sea.

Thus did Daisey set forth a major theme of his great unpacking: the “foundational pillars” of American history, “genocide and slavery.” It was an auspicious beginning for the Capital Fringe run—and an inauspicious start for our nation.


Running Time: Each chapter is about 90 minutes without intermission.

A People’s History is being performed in 18 different chapters through July 21, 2019 (see schedule below), in The Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theatre – 1101 6th Street, SW, in Washington. Tickets are available online and at the door. Your first ticket is $35. After that, tickets to subsequent performances in the series are $20 each.


Each performance of A People’s History is a sequential chapter of United States history, starting with the landing of Columbus in 1492 and concluding today in 2019.

Chapter 6: The Other Civil War, July 9 8pm
Chapter 7: The Oligarchs Love You, July 10 8pm
Chapter 8: The City That Was Free, July 11 8pm
Chapter 9: The Hunger That Waits, July 12 8pm
Chapter 10: The American Kryptonite, July 13 2pm
Chapter 11: The Revolutionary War, July 13 8pm
Chapter 12: The Black And Silent Wall, July 14 2pm
Chapter 13: The Problem That Has No Name, July 14 8pm
Chapter 14: The Happy Ending, July 16 8pm
Chapter 15: The Tyranny Of Wisdom, July 18 8pm
Chapter 16: The Limits Of Imagination, July 19 8pm
Chapter 17: The Chimes At Midnight, July 20 8pm
Chapter 18: The Living Moment, July 21 7pm

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