The first question audiences may ask when confronted with the classroom-like set of “A People’s History” is: Are there any prerequisites? The answer is, “No, not exactly.”
You don’t need to have read Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” before dipping into a section of the mammoth, multi-night Mike Daisey monologue that expounds on Zinn’s themes, but it wouldn’t hurt to know a bit about the book, which highlights uncomfortable stories that usually get ignored in history texts.
Daisey seems to assume we will be familiar with Zinn. Wednesday night, in the first of 18 separate shows he will deliver at the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio through March 31, the performer referred only glancingly to the book and only identified its author by his surname. The roughly 90-minute piece began with the premise that it’s fruitless to go looking for a golden moment when this country was pure.
The founding of the United States is “a crime and we never paid for it,” says Daisey, which is why there never has been “a moment when things weren’t totally [screwed].”
The monologuist is seated at a desk, behind a well-polished apple and a nameplate that identifies him as our teacher, “Mr. Daisey,” a device that feels vaguely off-putting as “People’s History” gets angrier and more passionate about this country and its history of terrorism (which Daisey thinks colonists invented), genocide, slavery and greed. Basically: Did we fork over nine bucks to see a lecture or theater?
Maybe we’re not supposed to know, and maybe that’s part of why the evening is a provocative one. Mostly calm and good-humored, Daisey riffed on about 150 years of U.S. history on opening night, starting with Christopher Columbus. (I’ll be interested to hear if he says more about pre-Columbus in future shows, which don’t seem to be strictly chronological. On opening night, Daisey linked guns to the birth of genocide and slavery as well as to what’s happening today).
What makes “A People’s History” feel human and connected, and with the potential to surprise audiences, is that the show is grounded in Daisey’s evident belief that all of this could have gone a different and better way — that the country might not have landed in its present predicament if, 400 years ago, Jamestown’s John Smith had listened to Chief Powhatan’s plea to choose cooperation over competition.
It’s a tribute to Daisey’s ambition that he’ll spend the next couple of weeks exploring these themes (genocide and slavery will rear their ugly heads frequently) and it’s a tribute to his gifts as a storyteller that this crazy theater idea just might work.