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The Last Cargo Cult

A Master Storyteller

As children, many of us sat in circles on the floor or buckled into car seats, listening intently to stories, entranced by the lives of others. Sometimes these lives were incredibly exciting; other times, they were only too recognizable as our own. Yet they always transported us outside of ourselves to see the world from another perspective and give shape and meaning to our own experiences.

Storytelling, as old as humanity itself, presents the possibility of seeing things in a new way, of moving us beyond our own myopic worldview, and of binding us together in the common experience of shared imagination.

Mike Daisey’s The Last Cargo Cult follows in the best of storytelling traditions, interweaving both the exciting and the mundane in a hilarious and engrossing tale that brings audiences back to that total state of utter enchantment experienced in childhood. In this case, Daisey takes on the topic of modern society’s relationship to money, presenting his observations in a captivating narrative that wanders all over the world. Though the ideas he presents are not necessarily new, the anecdotes in which they come to light are hilarious, unexpected, and insightful.

On the island of Tanna in Vanuatu, deep in the South Pacific, a cargo cult still thrives, worshipping the products of American consumerism. Every year, they celebrate John Frum Day, donning American military uniforms, raising an American flag, and performing American military maneuvers. However, the religion focuses not on becoming more like Americans but on returning to “kastom” – custom – living traditionally as they did before the arrival of missionaries, politicians, and military personnel.

Seeming incongruities and contradictions such as these are woven throughout Daisey’s story, a story that covers everything from erupting volcanoes to failing banks to car accidents to faith. And he never quite lets us get a handle on them — one minute it seems that he is saying the American consumerism is nothing more than a cult itself and the next he is saying that you would have to be blind to not want — we have “awesome shit.” Is there judgment? It’s hard to say — he seems to leave that to the audience, himself merely presenting observations and anecdotes.

One of the most memorable moments is when Daisey relates his experience of John Frum Day, where the natives “tell the history of America as they know it to be in dance, theater, and song.” He speaks eloquently of men and women performing a nine-hour dance, their costumes elaborately accented with silver tinsel, and of himself watching this history of America, and being totally lost. The humor is not just in what he describes (two men chasing each other in a circle for over twenty minutes, both wearing penis sheaths and the chaser the mask from Scream), or in what the dance represents (Obama being chased by a dragon); it is also in the fact that the audience can begin to conceive of America in a whole new way. Not as a joke, not as a god of commerce, not even as an evil empire or bringer of light, but simply as something other than what we think we know it to be.

Most surprising, though, is the fact that this two-hour storytelling extravaganza is unscripted. Daisey sits at a simple wooden table with notes in front and merchandise boxes behind, weaving the story anew each time he tells it. His emphatic explosions and pantomimed gestures punctuate the improvised flow of words to keep the audience entranced the entire time. Anything can happen from moment to moment, and the story lives from one instant to the next off of the reaction of the audience.

Mike Daisey is an impressive storyteller, bringing insight to some of the most everyday, mundane experiences we can have, as well as those fantastic and surreal experiences that only come along once in a lifetime. In The Last Cargo Cult, all of those experiences revolve around the common themes of material goods and money, lending a new and interesting perspective to those most pervasive of elements in Western culture.

Showing along with The Last Cargo Cult is Mike Daisey’s monologue, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs — if it’s anywhere near as fascinating as The Last Cargo Cult, it will also definitely be worth seeing.

Berkeley Repertory Theater
January 11th to February 27th
Tickets: $14.50-$73