As you enter the theater, the usher hands you a bill. Money. Real money. I got $5.00; my wife, a $1.00 bill. When we sat down, she said, “I only got a dollar.” She noticed that another person had twenty dollars. Didn’t make her feel too great. Exactly. The bills handed to viewers were soon used as a leitmotif throughout (and after) the show: Mike Daisey’s brilliantly provocative The Last Cargo Cult.
After the lights had darkened, Daisey was seated at a plain table, barren except for a glass of water. Large boxes (FED-EX, UPS, plus Styrofoam coolers, and hundreds of packages with visible logos, DELL, Crate & Barrel, etc.) were piled up imaginatively, forming a huge arch behind him. He’d apparently entered the stage by walking through the arch. Seated at his chair, he never stood up during the hour and forty-five minutes of his monologue, though his body moved so frequently and his facial expressions were so varied that he often looked like a piece of silly-putty stretched into an incredible shape.
The Last Cargo Cult is a one-man seated ballet, by a man sitting down who has obviously learned more about body-language than most actors who have the liberty to stand on two feet. Sometimes for a response, he didn’t need to say a word, just moved his body or changed the expression on his face.
So what’s this incredible show about? Well, basically, economics, which means money. Ostensibly it’s about a group of people on the South Sea island of Tanna, in Vanuatu, who each year reenact the John Frum (“John from America”) ceremony, paying homage to the American G.I.s, who in World War II brought so many foreign objects to their island. Then—after the war—they disappeared, as the soldiers took most of the objects (or “shit” as Daisey refers to consumer goods) along with them. The reenactment makes them hopeful that the objects, the cargo, will return. Before the G.I.s arrived, most of the islanders had renounced money, so it was probably no huge leap of faith that if consumer goods were dropped all over their island, why not worship John Frum and more goods would appear? During the ceremony each year, American flags are displayed everywhere and landing strips are built so the planes can return.
I am not making this up. I first heard about the Cargo Cults twenty or more years ago. Mike Daisey visited Tanna last February, observed the annual ritual, observed the practice of the people and turned it into an art form, a mad-cap roller-coaster ride into our own obsessions with consumer goods and money. Except that we haven’t destroyed all of our money like the islanders did, because we can’t. The people on Tanna have made John Frum into their religion; we’ve made money into ours.
Much of the play is about Daisey himself, especially an earlier part of his life when he first went away to an elite New England liberal arts college and was exposed to students much more affluent than he, worshipping their own prized possessions: elaborate stereo systems, whole walls of CDs, all the junk that university students cart to their dormitories each year. Students appeared to regard their education as a step toward further acquisition of goods: “Our shit is awesome…the point of Western civilization.”
But the real focus of The Last Cargo Cult is not what I’ve mentioned thus far but our recent financial collapse. The rest of the play is an extended analysis of American greed—everything that you read about in your newspapers and on the Internet virtually ever day—the abuses of bankers, Wall Street charlatans, and mortgage sharks, the source of our present discomfort. Ideally, the current Woolly Mammoth production in Washington, D.C. ought to have a special performance reserved for members of President Obama’s economic team, Congress, and Senators.
Daisey begins his segue into our current economic mess by confessing that his own financial strategy is limited to his modest bank account and his mattress. Money gets transferred from one to the other. Then he asks what is a dollar worth? Well, it’s the fundamental religion around the world today—nowhere more easily demonstrated than what is printed on the back of our currency: “In God We Trust.” There’s nothing more than faith to back up what is increasingly being regarded as fiat money. Money = liquid power. As he argues, it’s at the center of all corrosive relationships between people (and I might add nations.)
On one occasion after giving a mini-history of money and banking and concluding with derivatives, he tells us, “It took me three months to understand what derivatives are. I will never get those three months back.” Nor will most of us see the return of the money we lost in our retirement accounts, our homes, and our stock portfolios. Once the rational is no longer a part of our economic structure, the irrational people have won. Finally, Daisey asks, “How could we know that a system without morals and ethics would be so unsafe?”
As the performance winds down, Daisey continues his relentless attack on our fiat financial system, calling it “financial terrorism.” Money owns us, so we’ll no doubt be suckered into losing it again. Then he asks the members of the audience directly about the monologue he’s just presented, “Did you get your money’s worth?” And he adds, “You sit in darkness.”
There’s a final cut back to Vanuatu, where the chief tells Daisey, “You people are insane.” Well, yes. “Everything you have has a price but no value.” Yet the cargo binds us all together. “Someone will have to pay. Someone always does.”
Daisey gave the pilot version of The Last Cargo Cult at The Woolly Mammoth last June. Then he toured during much of the summer, giving versions of the play to regional audiences. The current Washington production has only a couple additional weeks in its run but hopefully Daisey will take it on the road again. Try to catch a performance wherever it appears.
The Last Cargo Cult
Washington, D.C., Woolly Mammoth, Jan. 11 – Feb. 7.
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.