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

“You are there” reports on each chapter in this 18-part theatrical crash course in all the essential shit they didn't teach you in high school.

Chapter 13: The Problem That Has No Name, July 14 8pm

In foregoing chapters, when Daisey addressed audiences who are mostly white like himself, he has typically mentioned the half who are women “who are treated as less than human.” The line has functioned as a moment of shared recognition and acknowledgement, not only for the women and men in the audience but for Daisey personally.

In the present chapter—its title borrowed from Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique—Daisey spoke of three revolutions that “exploded out of the culture” following on the Civil Rights Movement. What interconnects them is that each expanded the meaning of sovereignty for all people “treated less than human.”

Introducing the first revolution, the women’s liberation movement, Daisey began, as he often has done, by disclosing about himself. “I cannot see my own sexism,” he said (echoing  “I cannot see my own racism”). He described how his sexism suffused his 14-year marriage (since ended), in which he did not share equitably in housework and expected “a parade in my honor” whenever he did “manly” chores. He also admitted that he feels “awkward around men” and has an “uneasy relationship with masculinity.” And when he said, “I like women,” he was clear why: “I feel safe around them.”

This candor was evident as he touched on landmarks in the second-wave women’s movement. He acknowledged he did not know the problems women face directly and was not telling women in the audience anything they did not know. He was trying to reach men.

He began with a quote from Friedan that resonated with huge numbers of women who like herself were middle-class housewives who lived in suburbs formed by ’50s white flight.

The problem lay buried, unspoken for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slip-cover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night- — she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — “Is this all?”. . .

He went on to talk about the abortion-rights movement (“Power wants to control women’s bodies… Power does not want to come to the table because it knows it will lose.”) And he characterized Roe v. Wade as “a moderate decision,” not radical at all.

He quoted Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm:

The law cannot do it for us. We must do it for ourselves. Women in this country must become revolutionaries. We must refuse to accept the old, the traditional roles and stereotypes. … We must replace the old, negative thoughts about our femininity with positive thoughts and positive action. . . .

And he cited Susan Brownmiller’s classic Against Our Will, which inspired women to fight back against rape culture.

Often what passes for “a good man,” Daisey observed wryly, is just someone who’s “way less rapey than the other ones.” Then he told about the time he was in a bar and saw a man “being rapey” toward a woman. He was not a silent bystander; he intervened, effectively. And his description of how scary and necessary that act was sent a message to the men in the room.

Underscoring the intersection of racism, classism, and sexism, Daisey quoted a woman named Johnnie Tillmon:

I’m a woman. I’m a black woman. I’m a poor woman. I’m a fat woman. I’m a middle-aged woman. And I’m on welfare. …
Welfare’s like a traffic accident. It can happen to anybody, but especially it happens to women….
And that is why welfare is a women’s issue. For a lot of middle-class women in this country, Women’s Liberation is a matter of concern. For women on welfare it’s a matter of survival.

The second revolution Daisey talked about was the movement that began with riots inside “the prison industry.” In Zinn’s words,

Literature about the black movement, books on the war, began to seep into the prisons. The example set in the streets by blacks, by antiwar demonstrators, was exhilarating — against a lawless system, defiance was the only answer….

Such injustice deserved only rebellion.

Among the political prisoners who resisted was George Jackson, whose book Soledad Brother, written inside San Quentin, radicalized many. After Jackson was “shot in the back by guards while he was allegedly trying to escape,” there was “a chain of
rebellions” in prisons around the country.

The third revolution Daisey touched on was that of the First Nations, who were rising up, reclaiming their tribal identities, refusing to be absorbed into the white man’s culture, and demanding, among other things, their rights under treaties that the U.S. had broken with abandon. That any First Peoples survived at all was not what the early American genociders intended.

A dramatic galvanizing event of their resistance happened when 78 Indians occupied Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. The action, in Zinn’s words, “burst through the invisibility of previous local Indian protests and declared to the entire world that the Indians still lived and would fight for their rights.”

Like the recent #MeToo movement, these revolutions in the ’60s and ’70s “came from interconnected networks from the bottom up,” Daisey said. And his intersection of this chapter’s three revolutions conveyed a powerful coherence:  Men’s subordination of women is connected to the the prison industry’s subordination of black men is connected to the government’s subordination of First Nations.

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


Chapter 12: The Black And Silent Wall, July 14 2pm

This chapter became by far the most emotional in the series to date—for both the audience and Daisey, who at one point was dabbing away tears, as were many others. The scope of its historical content was how America bungled the Bay of Pigs invasion and how America screwed up in Vietnam. But the depth of the personal content was in what Daisey shared about his dad, a Vietnam vet.

The chapter would be begin and end with a wall. The first wall was the Malecón in Havana, where Daisey visited some years ago. The final wall was the Vietnam Memorial on the Mall. In between was a narrative of U.S. military and diplomatic blunders, mass killing, and overweening imperialism interwoven with the moving story of how a war affected a father-son relationship.

Daisey chose to start with the Bay of Pigs as “a stand-in for all the shit America has fucked up.” America “sees itself as a democracy that never invades anyone” although it has “upended democracies around the world.” During the postwar cold war with Russia, America was driven by the domino theory, worrying that countries would catch communism “like measles.” It was a naked power grab by capitalism.

“The essential soul of America is neurotic and conflicted,” said Daisey, and “America is ashamed that it didn’t solve Cuba problem.” A hundred miles from Florida, a tiny country had “defied an imperial power.” So the CIA hatched a plan to settle the score, and JFK signed off on it. The idea was to launch a fake resistance—mercenaries and Cuban ex-pats equipped with U.S.-made munitions—that would sail into the Bay of Pigs and “make a show of fighting.” Then a flotilla of warships nearby would attack Castro’s Cuba as if in backup support. (In previous chapters, Daisey had described this basic game plan: America, which believes itself to be never the aggressor, always arranges pretexts for its military exploits, “to trick the world into letting the U.S. invade.”)

Daisey read a passage from Zinn that underscored the hypocrisy:

Four days before the invasion — because there had been press reports of secret bases and CIA training for invaders — President Kennedy told a press conference: “. . . there will not be, under any conditions, any intervention in Cuba by United States armed forces.”

“The CIA is drunk on white supremacy,” said Daisey. “The CIA is the way America fucks the world.” The Bay of Pigs was a debacle.

An even greater catastrophe was America’s role in the Vietnam war. An overview from Zinn:

From 1964 to 1972, the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the history of the world made a maximum military effort, with everything short of atomic bombs, to defeat a nationalist revolutionary movement in a tiny, peasant country — and failed. When the United States fought in Vietnam, it was organized modern technology versus organized human beings, and the human beings won.

The Vietnam War Memorial. Not over.

Step by step, Daisey traced how America got into that mess in the first place—through successive periods of colonialism by the French and Japanese alongside decades of resistance by the Vietnamese. And the shocker, the big takeaway, was that as documented in the Pentagon Papers, “both countries [North and South Vietnam] and both sides of this war were invented by us.”

The Gulf of Tonkin attack under Johnson was another fake incident intended to justify military intervention. American officials blatantly lied to the American public, exactly as happened with the Bay of Pigs invasion. Daisey pointed to a recent instance of the tactic: the drone shot down by Iran that nearly triggered a war. Trump ordered the military on high alert, an attack was imminent, and then he asked, “Is anyone going to die from this?” When told the expected casualty count, he backed off.

“God bless his chicken-shit heart,” said Daisey.

The United States, which hundreds of years before “genocided a continent,” hammered Vietnam as though to “eradicate them.” It was “total war.” To put the devastation in context, Daisey quoted Zinn:

By the end of the Vietnam war, 7 million tons of bombs had been dropped on ‘Vietnam, more than twice the total bombs dropped on Europe and Asia in World War II — almost one 500-pound bomb for every human being in Vietnam.

The estimated death toll was 3.1 million, for which the only rationale can be racism, said Daisey: “They are less human than you.”

“I grew up with the fact of it, with what the war did to people,” Daisey said, because his father returned from Vietnam with PTSD. His father became a therapist who runs support groups for other service members with PTSD. Daisey has gone with his dad when they have taken groups to visit the “black glassy wall” of the Vietnam Memorial, which Daisey said is “a holy site for my father.” Daisey and his dad are very close. “But he left part of himself over there. He’s not entirely here.”

The toll of U.S. service members who died in Vietnam is 52,000. To add the 3.1 million Vietnamese who died “would need 70 memorials,” said Daisey. “It would fill the Mall with a river of black stone.”

Even now “we have concentration camps at the southern border,” Daisey reminded us. “We are the same nation, these are the same systems, this is our heritage, this is who we truly are.”

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


Chapter 11: The Revolutionary War, July 13 8pm

“This show is not fun for me,” said Daisey about midway through. “But sometimes you do a thing because it’s the right thing.”

The chapter’s title refers to the Civil Rights Movement, and Daisey’s telling of it turned personal from the start. “I can’t see my own racism,” he acknowledged—by implication on behalf of his mostly white audience as well. He admitted being embarrassed about his racism  and feeling awkward about not knowing the right thing to do or say—an experience the white audience could also likely relate to. And then he challenged them by telling about becoming mindful about who he spends time with, and affirmatively making sure his friendships include people of color. It was a provocative preface to his stories about the black revolt in the ’50s and ’60s under the weight of white supremacy.

He quoted a 1930s poem by Langston Hughes:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore —
And then run?

Or does it explode?

The Civil War did not bring freedom; reconstruction failed. And “black people were
fed up about being held down for so long.”

America by this time was a superpower—”with the power to erase human civilization.” Its cold war rival was another superpower, the Commuinist Soviet Union, which mocked the way America posed as as beacon of democracy but derogated black people. “Russia convinced the world America is a shithole country,” said Daisey.

Not without pressure.

“Power never ‘gives’ rights,” Daisey reminded us. “If power does it’s because it is forced to.” So it was that in the case of “the race question”—a blatant contradiction of America’s ostensible ideals—America was having a global PR problem, which is why Truman had to do something. He appointed a committee, and Daisey quoted from its CYA report as reprinted in Zinn:

We cannot escape the fact that our civil rights record has been an issue in world politics. The world’s press and radio are full of it. . . . Those with competing philosophies . . .  have tried to prove our democracy an empty fraud, and our nation a consistent oppressor of underprivileged people. . . .  The United States is not so strong, the final triumph of the democratic ideal is not so inevitable that we can ignore what the world thinks of us or our record.

Afterward Truman took the laudable step of integrating the armed services, but that too was power responding to pressure; he was getting heat from a progressive candidate he was running against.

Daisey quoted Rosa Parks three months after her arrest for refusing to obey the segregation law on a Montgomery bus: “When and how would we ever determine our rights as human beings?” The ensuing boycott sparked nationwide attention and was joined and supported, Daisey pointed out, by trade unionists and socialists.

Daisey also shared Dr. Martin Luther King’s stirring oratory:

We have known humiliation, we have known abusive language, we have been plunged into the abyss of oppression. And we decided to raise up only with the weapon of protest. It is one of the greatest glories of America that we have the right of protest.

If we are arrested every day, if we are exploited every day, if we are trampled over every day, don’t ever let anyone pull you so low as to hate them. We must use the weapon of love. We must have compassion and understanding for those who hate us. We must realize so many people are taught to hate us that they are not totally responsible for their hate. But we stand in life at midnight, we are always on the threshold of a new dawn.

It was then Daisey talked personally again about “what it means to have black people in your life.” He told of his boyhood friendship with Doug, who is black. They were fellow geeks into comic books and Dungeons and Dragons, and as they grew older Doug was to school Mike about his racism. Mike got into college prep courses; Doug did not. It wasn’t because Mike was smarter—Doug had prodigious knowledge of the universe of Marvel comic books. It was because Mike was white.

“They don’t give you a model” for how to work on your racism, Daisey said. “You practice human kindness and openness and you check yourself.”

The heat and intensity of nonviolent resistance caused power to “blink,” said Daisey, “but power did not concede.” The 1968 Civil Rights Act contained a section that was used as a tool to suppress black violence and rage. The law made it a crime  “to organize, promote, encourage, participate in, or carry on a riot” and it defined a riot as any action by three or more people involving threats of violence.

After the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Dr. King turned his attention to class inequality and set out to form an alliance between black and white workers and communicate the connection between racism, war, and poverty.

It was “no coincidence” Dr. King was assassinated, Daisey said. He had been taped and blackmailed by the FBI. “He refused to be controlled, then is killed.”

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


Chapter 10: The American Kryptonite, July 13 2pm

“History done well is the psychology of a nation,” Daisey said. It was a line that shed a lot of light on the 18-part project he has undertaken to understand American history by looking at “what’s left out.”

The chapter was going to be about “the one good war”—when “we get to punch Nazis.” In fact for a long time, going back to 1936, “we made a point of doing nothing…not stopping Hitler but helping by doing nothing.” Not until Pearl Harbor did America leave the sidelines and join the conflict..

The delay was uncharacteristic, because “America doesn’t like to intervene but does it all the time.” Citing instances prior to Pearl Harbor, Daisey illustrated “the way our military creates intervention,” which is to “create intensity” and “escalate tension” in order to “goad other people to hit us first.”

This is not how America likes to think of itself, of course, and so a “narrative about sneak attack” has been the official line on why the U.S. got into World War II. Not coincidentally this was the same cover story floated to explain how the Mexican-American war began.

In fact in the weeks before Pearl Harbor, America instigated several “provocative acts toward Japan,” including “cutting off supplies.” President FDR was “a schoolyard bully,” said Daisey. “He wanted a war, and he creates it.” So there was the routine goading into conflict. “Then they hit us harder than we expected.”

After the Pearl Harbor attack, the U.S. in effect approximated the fascism it had gone to war to fight. Daisey quoted Zinn:

Franklin D. Roosevelt … signed Executive Order 9066, in February 1942, giving the army the power, without warrants or indictments or hearings, to arrest every Japanese-American on the West Coast — 110,000 men, women, and children — to take them from their homes, transport them to camps far into the interior, and keep them there under prison conditions. … The Japanese remained in those camps for over three years.”

Daisey read from Zinn about a 1945 article in Harpers that called the internment camps “our worst wartime mistake”:

Was it a “mistake” — or was it an action to be expected from a nation with a long history of racism and which was fighting a war, not to end racism, but to retain the fundamental  elements of the American system?

The war was not fought on American soil. “We are far away from it; all the deaths are on other lands.” Countries there are “scarred by death.”  After the war the full extent of the Allies’ saturation bombing became known. Its targets were not military; its purpose was to undermine the morale of the German people, and it culminated in the firebombing of Dresden, which left 100,000 civilians dead. As a consequence of wartime horrors, European nations are “now actively less imperialist.” Meanwhile America’s imperialistic military exploits, as in the Middle East, have continued apace, often over oil. Daisey quoted Zinn:

In August 1945 a State Department officer said that “a review of the diplomatic history of the past 35 years will show that petroleum has historically played a larger part in the external relations of the United States than any other commodity.”

Mushroom clouds over Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right). Not cool.

When in August 1945 America dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, there was a backstory rarely told, said Daisey: “Japan was trying to surrender,” meaning there “was no justification” for the destruction. “We used all the bombs we had.” If there were more, speculated Daisey, we’d probably have used them. “When we were out of bombs we accepted surrender.”

“That is the moment when America becomes a superpower,” said Daisey. “That is the moment that we have the power to destroy the world.”

Daisey returned to a theme running throughout A People’s History: “The essence of American exceptionalism is genocide and slavery. ” And he related it to the present chapter: “The Nazis are pussies compared to us.”

Another theme of the series been America’s “blind spot” about the facts of its past. And here Daisey called attention to  how  Americans “demonize the Nazis” and make Germany “the bogeyman”—”because we never talk about what we do to our own people.  We can’t talk about the parts of ourselves that’s like them.”

And he reiterated how future generations will assess this time when “we fucked the planet. We sucked carbon out of the earth and sent it into the atmosphere.” The earth is burning from the heat. And, said Daisey, citing the IPPC report on global warming, “there is no good scenario.”

The cryptic title about kryptonite became clear when Daisey told of a visit he made to Los Almos to see the crater where America’s first atomic bomb was detonated. Despite cleanup efforts, the site is still radioactive. The heat of the explosion—for a hot second it surpassed  the surface of the sun—melted the sand and turned it into a green glasslike substance now called trinitite, pieces of which can still be seen. Daisey dubbed it America’s kryptonite, “our birthright,” because it is both so beautiful and so lethal.

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


Chapter 9: The Hunger That Waits, July 12 8pm

Daisey began reading from a letter written by Theodore Roosevelt to a friend in 1897: “In strict confidence … I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one.” It was a stark entry point for a chapter about America’s “hunger for expansion,” its “hunger to drive west by genociding a continent,” and then, having run out of space going west, its overweening expansionist imperialism because it kept wanting more.

Teddy Roosevelt. Never a big enough stick.

Between 1798 and 1895, American armed forces made more than a hundred overseas forays and interventions in the affairs of other countries. We don’t get told this in the default American history. Then as now, the pretexts given for these military exploits were not the real reasons. In Howard Zinn’s words, these “foreign adventures” were meant to “deflect some of the rebellious energy that went into strikes and protest movements toward an external enemy” and “unite people with government, with the armed forces, instead of against them.”

But the main reason for these exploits, Daisey told us, was that America needed to prove how powerful it is, to show other nations that it’s a world power. And “people who have to prove how powerful they are have to keep doing that.”

This was not the first time Daisey had personified America in terms that mapped to how insecure men act. Or as Daisey specified, America was acting “like a pent-up schoolyard bully, like an incel.” And further, Daisey said, America was so expansionist because it “had a fucked-up childhood”—its origin in genocide and slavery.

“The hunger that informs overseas adventures is key to who we are,” said Daisey, and his apt gendered psychographic for America could be heard in an editorial he quoted from Washington Post on the eve of the Spanish- American war:

A new consciousness seems to have come upon us — the consciousness of strength — and with it a new appetite, the yearning to show our strength. . . .Ambition, interest, land hunger, pride, the mere joy of fighting, whatever it may be, we are animated by a new sensation. We are face to face with a strange destiny. The taste of Empire is in the mouth…

The “we” in that editorial of course meant entitled white men, who could relate to it as could no one else. And at points in the chapter Daisey drew out a subtextual connection between America’s imperialism and men’s sexism. As in the previous chapter, he brought up the Kavanaugh hearings as an illustration of a man filled with rage that he is being accused, a rage that said, “How dare you question me?”

Women know this about men, Daisey said. “Women assess how likely a man will perform that rage.”

And then Daisey segued to disclosures about himself that seemed at times almost too honest for public performance. He told of his sexism and how it impacted a relationship such that he had to confront it and work on it. He gave as an example needing to learn to clean his own mess and clutter because he realized his expectation that his girlfriend would do it was sexist.

“Gentlemen, I began to clean up my shit,” he said.

At which point the audience burst into applause, which seemed to throw him. “Don’t applaud me!” he said.

Other historical topics that came up included the intense racism of the period. He quoted Zinn: “In the years between 1889 and 1903, on the average, every week, two Negroes were lynched by mobs — hanged, burned, mutilated.”

Daisey also talked about the massive income inequality, which is “a hallmark of America” and is worse now than then. Also the financial crashes throughout the 19th century, when “capitalism folds in on itself.” Also the literal hunger and desperation of people during the Depression. Also the coming climate catastrophe, “the end of this world that we now live in,” which “a society already good at not looking at genocide and slavery” is now also ignoring.

He closed with a poem written in the mid-thirties by Langston Hughes called “Let America Be America Again.” It said, in part,

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan.
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak. . . .
O, let America be America again —
The land that never has been yet —
And yet must be — the land where every man is free….

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


Chapter 8: The City That Was Free, July 11 8pm

The synchronicity at Arena was surreal. It was opening night in the Kreeger for a bio-play about Texas Governor Ann Richards (who famously said of George W., “He was born with a silver foot in his mouth). Downstairs a reading of The Mueller Report was in progress (during which Trump famously says, “I’m fucked”). And in the Kogod Cradle, Mike Daisey was doing a monologue about agitators and infamous oppressors in America.

Daisey began the chapter with a question, “What does it mean to be free?” And (jumping ahead to the end) the titular “city that was free” turned out to be Seattle, where for five days in February 1919, a general strike by 100,000 workers brought the city to a standstill.

In between that opener and that closer was an engrossingly annotated overview of “20th-century wonders and horrors,” with a focus on the rise of the labor movement.

[Chapter 1 is now available in full on YouTube. Scroll down to watch.]

But first some preliminaries about Daisey’s own employment history. As a teen in northern rural Maine, he once had low-paying work behind the meat and deli counter of a convenience store. Hunters would bring in deer to a shack out back to be bled and gutted. Daisey’s job was to squeegee the floor and dispose of the viscera. Anyone who had been following A People’s History was likely not surprised when Daisey read in those entrails America’s history of genocide, racism, slavery, and sexism.

With ICE anti-immigrant raids promised on Sunday, it was a particularly disconcerting moment for Daisey to explicate how white supremacy infects us (meaning ourselves and our nation) and the way we develop a “defensive shell that inures us to the issues of the world…that makes you not feel things.”

Except, of course, entitled white men are entitled to feel a conspicuously privileged kind of outrage, a characteristic “I don’t deserve this” indignation. “I call that a Kavanaugh,” Daisey cracked.

Flashback to the bad old days when the workweek was 70 to 80 hours and child labor was the norm. In 1907, a poet reporting on New York City sweatshops wrote in Cosmopolitan magazine (not the Cosmo we know today):

In unaired rooms, mothers and fathers sew by day and by night. . . . And the children are called in from play to drive and drudge beside their elders. . . .Nearly any hour . . .  you can see them — pallid boy or spindling girl — their faces dulled, their backs bent under a heavy load of garments piled on head and shoulders, the muscles of the whole frame in a long strain. . .

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on fire. Not a best place to work.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911—when 146 workers were burned or crushed to death—gets a mention in U.S. history textbooks. But typically left out of the narrative, said Daisey, is the activism that began two years before when the workers got together and voted to strike. They did strike. And police paid by factory owners struck back.

Workers were organizing for their lives, and unionization was growing—but even in unions inequality was institutionalized. Daisey quoted Zinn:

Shortly after the turn of the century there were 2 million members of labor unions (one in fourteen workers), 80 percent of them in the American Federation of Labor. The AFL was an exclusive union — almost all male, almost all white, almost all skilled workers. Although the number of women workers kept growing — it doubled from 4 million in 1 890 to 8 million in 19 10, and women were one-fifth of the labor force — only one in a hundred belonged to a union.

Black workers in 1910 made one-third of the earnings of white workers [and were] excluded from most AFL unions.

A new direct-action mobilization nicknamed the “Wobblies” (the Industrial Workers of the World) aimed to create one big union “undivided by sex, race, or skills.” It started at a convention in Chicago in 1905 of two hundred socialists, anarchists, and radical trade unionists from all over the country. Daisey quoted from Zinn an address by a leader at that gathering:

Fellow workers. . . . This is the Continental Congress of the working-class. We are here to confederate the workers of this country into a working-class movement that shall have for its purpose the emancipation of the working-class from the slave bondage of capitalism. . . . The aims and objects of this organization shall be to put the working-class in possession of the economic power, the means of life, in control of the machinery of production and distribution, without regard to the capitalist masters.

Others who spoke included Eugene Debs, the leader of the Socialist party who was to run for president, and Mother Mary Jones, after whom the progressive magazine is named. The radical Wobblies’ constitution laid it on the line:

The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.

“I know you’re not radicals,” Daisey joshed. “I won’t condemn you for that, because you’d do that yourself.” But never one to avoid reminding his audience we are implicated by our privilege, Daisey did a riff on the 401(k) as an example of what makes one a member of “the investing class.”

“Power is clever,” said Daisey, but “agitation causes power to blink, negotiate.” For instance, he told of activist efforts that resulted in the FDA and FTC—”regulation to protect people that would not have shown up but for organized agitation”—because “if something becomes a wave and starts to grow, power freaks the fuck out.”

A tangent about “the rotten orange pumpkin in charge of the country” thrust the themes in this chapter into the present. “He goes to dictators and admires their power. He tells them he loves them because he does love them.” In his “venalness and stupidity,” he is the “least-deep person,” Daisey said; “he would be more dangerous if he weren’t as stupid.” But “someone smarter is coming,” Daisey warned, and if we think what Trump has unleashed will be over when he’s gone, we are “fools.”

The Great War not only “systematizes and technologizes killing” (there are “cascades of death”). World War I also “freezes progressive movements,” said Daisey. And a newly devised Espionage Act (the same one that threatens Edward Snowden) is employed to get rid of Wobblies and eliminate speech rights.

The Wobblies were jailed. Debs too was convicted. And at his sentencing Debs said to the court:

Your honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

Though the Wobblies were all imprisoned, their radical idea of direct action took hold and lived on in Seattle during that five-day general strike, which was totally nonviolent. Tacitly endorsing the tactic, Daisey said in closing, “Sounds like a plan.”

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

Tonight: Chapter 9: The Hunger That Waits, July 12 8pm
America’s imperialism across the globe and how we grow it in our homes.


Chapter 7: The Oligarchs Love You, July 10 8pm

Though Mike Daisey has not mentioned it, the word oligarch never appears in “the Zinn.” The word oligarchy, however, occurs in Howard Zinn’s book a lot—meaning the structure of aristocracy that narcissistic rich white men brought over from England and instituted in America so that a minuscule proportion of the population could pwn the rest. Today we usually see the word oligarch in the news with the word Russian in front of it. But in this installment, Daisey got personal and went after the oligarchs of America.

Daisey began, as he often does, with a hilarious story about himself, about how he started out in Seattle in his twenties performing in “garage theater,” meaning “weird, strange,  experimental” in a basement with a boiler. (Since his topic was class, it was not lost on him or us that he was now speaking from a tony multimillion-dollar stage.) Early on, upon receiving a very bad but factually true review, Daisey shelved his going-nowhere/earning-nothing career as a monologuist and, as he put it, “sold out.” He got a job working in a call center at Amazon for the man who would become the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos, whom Daisey dubbed “a techno-libertarian asshole.”

Daisey referenced his high school history textbook (“the default propaganda”), which has a chapter titled “1865–1900 Industry Comes of Age,” which is only partly true. Actually, Daisey told us, that was the period when corporations and oligarchs (“robber barons”) enshrined “massive inequality of wealth” and “the systems of how to fuck us really get codified.”

He quoted a passage from “the Zinn” that bears repeating:

In the year 1877, the signals were given for the rest of the century: the black would be put back; the strikes of white workers would not be tolerated; the industrial and political elites of North and South would take hold of the country and organize the greatest march of economic growth in human history. They would do it with the aid of, and at the expense of, black labor, white labor, Chinese labor, European immigrant labor, female labor, rewarding them differently by race, sex, national origin, and social class, in such a way as to create separate levels of oppression — a skillful terracing to stabilize the pyramid of wealth.

The strategy was to “make people afraid they will lose what they have,” to “make sure you don’t know you have a voice.” And, Daisey reminded us, undergirding the American class system (which no one wants to talk about) are the nation’s foundations in genocide and slavery (which no one wants to talk about even more).

Two trains “kiss” and unite the transcontinental railway. Not a great day for economic justice.

There was “space for men to make lots of money,” and Daisey gave as an example the first transcontinental railway, which, Zinn says, “was built with blood, sweat, politics and thievery.” Daisey gave an avaricious picture of bribes to Congress (in exchange for free land handouts and legal immunity), shady bookkeeping and corruption, and lethal exploitation of tens of thousands of Chinese, Irish, and war veterans who were paid a pittance.

It is commonly believed that America is “a land of opportunity” where there’s “upward mobility,” but in fact few multimillionaires during this period started out poor. Says Zinn:

The Horatio Alger stories of “rags to riches” were true for a few men, but mostly a myth, and a useful myth for control.

Daisey dropped a bunch of boldface names of American oligarchs who are familiar to us now—Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller (many of whom paid to get out of military service). But it was his telling story about J. P. Morgan that brought the picture into focus. During the Civil War, Morgan bought 5,000 rifles at $3.50 apiece and resold them to the military at $22 each. He was, said Daisey, “a war profiteer.” But that wasn’t the worst part. According to Zinn,

The rifles were defective and would shoot off the thumbs of the soldiers using them. A congressional committee noted this in the small print of an obscure report, but a federal judge upheld the deal as the fulfillment of a valid legal contract.

Daisey, who grew up in rural northern Maine where “there was no money,” was blunt about his own first experience of class when he went to college and his abiding animus toward the rich. But America fawns over its billionaires while believing anyone can get rich too and if you’re poor it’s your fault. He quoted from Zinn a self-help guru on the lecture circuit back then who preached that belief to millions of people:

I say that you ought to get rich, and it is your duty to get rich. . . . The men who get rich may be the most honest men you find in the community. . . .

I sympathize with the poor, but the number of poor who are to be sympathized with is very small. To sympathize with a man whom God has punished for his sins … is to do wrong. … let us remember there is not a poor person in the United States who was not made poor by his own shortcomings.

Daisey quit his job at Amazon—before he was vested in stock that would be worth a ton of money today—and recommitted to the storytelling career that is now being greeted with standing ovations in Capital Fringe. He revisited his overarching theme, how our inability/unwillingness to acknowledge our nation’s roots in genocide, slavery, and wealth inequality has left us unable/unwilling to face the planet’s coming existential climate catastrophe. And he got personal some more. “What we do matters,” he said, “what we do with our time matters. If people sell out enough, they lose their sense of who they are.”


Chapter 6: The Other Civil War, July 9 8pm

The audience had been laughing all along at what seemed a free-associational digression—about how shitty New York City can be, about a horrible experience Mike Daisey and his ex had with their Brooklyn landlord, about how men interrupt their wives and mansplain… Though it was all very funny, he seemed to be going nowhere. About 25 minutes in, he paused, took in the room, and said, “Yes, there is some history. It’s coming.” That cracked everyone up because indeed he had not yet dropped a single historical factoid. But then he just meandered on—about a dorky video game he plays, about how men check out and don’t show up for conversations, about all the millionaires in Manhattan…

It was classic Daiseyan audience-bonding via misdirection and conceptual-framework building—he was laying down a laugh track to prepare us to hear the sobering stuff ahead. And this night we got an earful about early social resistances and disturbances that begin to confront how power is constructed in America.

Not authorized.

As if out of nowhere, Daisey read an 1839 letter to a landlord from tenants on an estate in Upstate New York. They were being treated like serfs by a ridiculously rich Dutch landowner, and they organized to tell him they were not going to pay rent until their grievances were addressed. The confrontation escalated. A sheriff’s posse of hundreds was met by even more hundreds of farmers with pitchforks and clubs. It was the beginning of a bottom-up mass movement against wealth and power—”the other civil war” referenced in the chapter title.

So that hilarious long anecdote about a landlady and that snarky mention of millionaires wasn’t so out of left field after all. It was all a setup, Daisey-style.

In what followed, Daisey touched on some other notable flashpoints of resistance, often to make a point about how social change and progress happen—which is to say, unevenly, not straightforwardly. As he has before, Daisey used the metaphor of waves crashing ashore. They crash and recede, crash and recede, and then now and again something about the shore is impacted and made different.

Such social movements for change did not become possible until workers began in the 1830s to have enough free time to think and talk with one another. An 1864 strike in New York City during Civil War, for instance, won the 40-hour work week. In such ways as these, the “people’s history” of America became not just that of “privileged people at the top,” the so-called “great man theory of history—or “great white man,” as Daisey corrected it.

Again Daisey knocked the boring way American history is taught—”a version of history that no one cares about.” Absent from the narrative is the explanatory master plot of American imperialism—of which “genocide is the beating heart”—because “if you know why people are doing shit, stories make more sense.”

Daisey drew out a pivotal subplot about how power suborns resistance—for instance by permitting a few people from disenfranchised groups into positions of apparent influence but “leaving the basic structure of rich and poor.”

And crucially, Daisey explained how power has redefined who are “white people.” At a time  when white supremacy was threatened because it didn’t have the numbers, the Irish began being counted as “white.” White supremacy is again facing demographic shortage and so now is enlisting, Daisey said, conservative-leaning Hispanic Americans. “You change the rules to make sure you stay on top.”

Thereafter corporations arose, evolving from a system of “special charters” and aggregating enormous wealth and power. Railroads, for instance, got millions of acres of free land in exchange for outright bribes.

Echoing a previous chapter, Daisey drew a parallel between “Jacksonian Democracy” (i.e, “fascism”) and Trump’s racism-driven populism. Trump is “a manipulator” and “a narcissist who has no shame,” Daisey said, and “the people he sells out never notice.” Trump “tweets shitting on a gold toilet” while his credulous constituency thinks “You know how to help farmers!”

Meanwhile, during this period of rapid change and turmoil back in the day, a game-changer two-party system arose. Daisey quoted “the Zinn” as he has nicknamed his source, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States:

To give people a choice between two different parties and allow them, in a period of rebellion, to choose the slightly more democratic one was an ingenious method of control.

In resistance, the first rally of what was to become a Socialist party was held in New York City in Tompkins Square Park in 1877. It was peaceful. Until the police arrived with clubs and busted it up.

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



Chapter 5: The Manifest Destiny, July 7 8pm

Mike Daisey had just begun reading an 1845 letter from a soldier who was being deployed to 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 nicely 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 14: The Happy Ending, July 16 8pm
Goddamn motherfucking Ronald fucking Reagan.

Chapter 15: The Tyranny Of Wisdom, July 18 8pm
Secret stories of unreported resistance from the dark times, a useful guide as fascism rises now.

Chapter 16: The Limits Of Imagination, July 19 8pm
The Clinton years—our nostalgia for them is so very strong, and the truth hurts so very much.

Chapter 17: The Chimes At Midnight, July 20 8pm
The system begins to fully disintegrate under our abuses AKA the Bush years.

Chapter 18: The Living Moment, July 21 7pm
Obama, Trump, and a reckoning here in the living moment right now

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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.


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