Magic Time!: Why ‘A People’s History’ Is “Painful”: A Q&A With Mike Daisey

As his sweeping rethink about American history continues, the master monologist has a few things to say to white people.

John: Before you brought A People’s History to DC, you performed all 18 parts three times—once through in Minneapolis and twice through in Seattle. I can imagine people could be picking and choosing chapters, not necessarily listening in succession. Was that your experience with audiences in Minneapolis and Seattle?

Mike: Yes, more repeat listening than I could have hoped for. A lot of people came back to hear it again from a different position and in a different chapter, and I was really happy with that.

You said when you performed the show in Seattle that it’s hard to do and it’s hard to hear.

Oh, yes it is. It’s painful.

Painful?

Yes, I think that’s strongly related to the material. Like a lot of people who live here, I identify as an American, and I find it very painful to even begin to address genocide and slavery. It’s just very painful to wrestle with everything that we have done, to even try to take some kind of an accounting for it. And then it’s very painful to feel the will of the audience and in myself to not see it.

People come to the room to have an experience so that they can have an entertainment, so they can be subverted, taken out of themselves. But even when they tell themselves that, they don’t actually want to be subverted. Like with a lot of my monologues, they actually know the most important things before they get in the room. They know that slavery existed, and they know that racism is a virulent force in American society today right now, and they know that the country is ruled by an oligarchy. They know these things. They know them already. My job in all the monologues is to show people something that they already know. That they either refuse to look at or that they refuse to acknowledge or see, and try to get them to see it in a new way, cast a different light on it.

I was really struck by how you talk about yourself as a white person, as a cis, straight-presenting white male person. And you invite the audience to think about their place in white supremacy and male supremacy as well. I found it really interesting how that connects to the big themes of the show: American exceptionalism, triumphalism, and imperialism. You seemed to provide a model for what it means to dismantle those identity structures that are actually at the core of what you’re critiquing politically.

I think that’s true. Is it the best model? That I couldn’t speak to. But I think it is a model because I think the form of the monologue is that the one is speaking to the many. Then that one person who’s speaking is present and is real; and at the same time, by their nature, the people listening are then projecting themselves into the cracks and fissures of the psyche of the one who’s speaking from this pedestal. One of the things I try to do when I shape monologues is craft a construct that gives them space so that they can feel themselves inside that story.

Right now—I mean forever but certainly in the last 20 years—the vast majority of people grappling with white supremacy are people of color. And it seems to me that one of the first steps to even dream of a world with more accountability is for people who have been the largest beneficiaries of white supremacy to reckon with our own racism and what our supremacy means to us.

The vast majority of the audiences that come to see this work are from my tribe, which becomes a repeated motif in the show: “I know who you are. You go to the theater. I go to the theater. You are mostly white. I am mostly white.” There’s this cadence repeated that is partly coy and funny but very heartfelt: “The vast majority of you look and are like me.”

People of color have been describing white supremacy as a force from its effects on them. We have unbelievable troves of art about that. They’ve been so generous and needed to tell their stories. But there’s an incredible absence of people trying to grapple with what it means to be part of this group—the ways in which we are all complicit with it—and then what we’re actually willing to do to take an accounting of it. And so it seemed to me the only way to tell history like this—to not commit the same sin of pretending to be an objective world view—would be to incorporate my identity.

At least once in every show, there’s a personal, relatable moment of recognition of what whiteness means.  It’s really strong. And I’m guessing you’re listening to the audience and you’re hearing them think during these passages?

Most of the work I’ve been doing for 20 years could be boiled down to listening. And the amount of data that comes out of the audience with this particular show is very intense. As pressure is put on them in different ways, they become uncomfortable, and I listen to that.

Besides American exceptionalism and triumphalism, the theme of climate change comes into the show. “The earth is burning,” you say.

I don’t even want to call it climate change anymore. I find myself calling it the end of this world, because I believe that the change that’s happening now is an ahistorical event—ahistorical to our experience of life, even in the longest time frame that humans have had. So much of what’s soothing and horrifying about history is how it repeats. But looming in front of us, we know, is this ahistorical event, this black wall. We know that everything that is functioning now is going to change, and it’s going to change in what is such a small amount of time in historical terms, and we have this rare, horrifying gift that we know it’s going to change, it’s not even a question. And unlike all these other repetitions in history, this is actually something new.

The Post ran a huge headline in the Outlook section: “How we tell the story of America.” There seems to be a new kind of meta interest in that question.  And it seems to me that in A People’s History you’re really challenging the way we think about history, the way we tell it, the way we learn it. And then there is this climate catastrophe that just drops into the story.

What will be the future history in 75 years or 100 years when they look back now, in the way that we look back 100 years or 150 years? When they look back, they will not care about so many things we care about. But then some of the things that we care about, they’ll care about immensely. We can imagine children having to memorize when the Kyoto Protocols were and when the Paris Accords were, because that will be the map of how we didn’t actually stop it, since now it’s transformed the whole world. In retrospect everyone will know that that was obviously the most important news that was happening.

A People’s History is part of Fringe, but it’s also at Arena, the theater in town that most programs plays that intersect with the way the government is conducted, where there’s a lot of conversation between the political system and what happens on stage. Could you reflect on what it means to be in DC with this story?

The politics of art are complicated, and looking ahead, based on where this show is at in its life cycle, next year is an election, and you can already feel the pressure of that rising up, and I was really afraid that I wouldn’t get this monologue to the nation’s capital before the intensity of that conversation gets too loud. Because it will play very differently a year from now in the summer. And now there’s enough space that we have lots of candidates in play, and so the election is part of our lives, but it is not dominating in the same way it will a year from now. So I thought it was really important if this cultural thing is going to happen in the nation’s capital that it happen now.

At previous monologues of yours, I’ve seen you mingle with audiences afterward.

I do, sometimes. It varies. It’s a decision I make at showtime or right after the show. I see how I feel, and what’s happening the next day. There’s a pleasure in saying hello to people afterward. In both cities the show’s been done in so far, it becomes over time a kind of ad-hoc community, which is one of the things I most enjoy about it as a live experience. More people than you would expect will make the decision to come back. And then those people start to see people they’ve seen at the theater before, and then they have conversations about episodes and chapters they’ve liked or things that they’re tracking.

The monologues tend to make people want to talk. In this show, the stakes are so high, because the story of our history is the story we tell ourselves about who we are, and so it actually becomes part of our own self-definition.

By talking about the history of sexism and racism and imperialism, I like to hope I can chip away and dissolve away some of the chains that enwrap me in that sexism and racism that I cling to. I’m wrapped in them, but to complete the metaphor, like some of them, I like, and I’m holding on to them, and I’m trying to pry my own hands off of them.

I love that you do that, I love how you do it.

Thank you. It’s probably part of why it’s hard, it’s actually painful. Because if it isn’t painful at all, you’re probably not actually getting at the issue.

There’s a really interesting theme through the show about the way history is taught. It erases women, people of color, First Nations. It’s like there’s a cloud in between reality and what history reports, and you keep dispelling it.

It’s a great benefit of working with great material. I think that Zinn’s book is a fantastic book. I love the way that I get an opportunity to talk about the things that are so resonant and powerful in Zinn’s material.

Your chapter titles are kind of cryptic and you don’t expand on them in the advance material—

Exactly. I actually want people to be trapped in history that they’re not entirely comfortable with. Why on earth would I give them an accurate roadmap?

Seattle and Minneapolis are whiter towns than DC.

Yes. And we’ll see if that’s reflected in our audiences. I hope it is.

Why should people of color come to this show? What’s in it for them?

Well, I’ve had a bunch of people of color come, proportionate to how many there are in Seattle and Minneapolis. And like one who I don’t know just wrote me unsolicitedly and said, “I literally didn’t know how to feel about a white person unpacking it this way, because I have never—” They wanted to be clear, they were like, “I don’t even know if I like it. I just didn’t even know what emotional response to have, because that’s so not part of the conversation that I have witnessed.”

Given how much obliviousness there is among white people to what’s happening today, racist violence and so forth, the experience of sitting through one of your shows and having that white obliviousness called out by a white person must be eye-opening to say the least. 

I certainly hope that audiences of color do find the show. At the same time, I want to be really clear that I don’t see that as their charge and responsibility. It’s my responsibility to try to get the work out.

Specifically talking to white people.

Yes. To my people. Taking responsibility for my people.

A People’s History is being performed as part of Capital Fringe in 18 different chapters through July 21, 2019, 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.

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.