Thursday, January 29, 2009

In a few weeks I'm traveling to the remote island of Tanna, a tiny speck at the end of the Vanuatu island chain in the South Pacific. It is the location of the last cargo cult in the world: a religion created by islanders after Americans built temporary bases here during WWII.

The religion revolves around the worship of American power, and the summoning of America's power back to the island through sympathetic magic. Islanders enact rituals where they wear whiteface and create costumes that look like military uniforms, and sit at bamboo tables to "type" on bamboo recreations of typewriters...because they saw American servicemen doing the same, and it made the cargo come, and with it the power of America.

From the Wikipedia entry about the John Frum cult:

"In 1941, followers of John Frum rid themselves of their money in a frenzy of spending, left the missionary churches, schools, villages and plantations, and moved further inland to celebrate traditional custom through feasts, dances and rituals. The movement gained popularity in the 1940s when some 300,000 American troops established themselves in Vanuatu. The islanders were impressed both by the egalitarianism of the Americans and their obvious wealth and power. This led them to conflate perceived benefactors such as Uncle Sam, Santa Claus and John the Baptist into a mythic figure who would empower the island peoples by giving them cargo wealth."

Meticulous simulacra have been created—life-size models of McDonnell Douglas DC-9 aircraft, lovingly shaped from bamboo and straw, totems made to call power back to the island. Control towers of bamboo, whole runways accurate to an inch but made of palm fronds—a universe constructed from faith that they could compel America to return to the island.

Now the religion is over fifty years old, and the islanders' faith has evolved with the times. Today the village elders watch CNN on satellite uplink...and they write new hymns to draw out the power of America, based on the news events they see occurring in that far-off land.

I will be there for a massive celebration, held once a year, when the islanders recreate the stories of America from across the sea. They will re-enact the events of the past year—I hope I will see Obama be inaugurated a second time—in great detail. I will be there for this event, and remaining for a number of weeks to interview and see what I can learn of their lives.

Then I will be touring Australia, where I'll be performing the very earliest notes toward a new monologue. Tentatively titled
THE LAST CARGO CULT, it will explore stories of belief, trust and sympathetic magic from  the cargo cults by weaving them against stories of belief, trust, and sympathetic magic from a more familiar source: the international financial crisis.

From the belief in the infallibility of markets that gave birth to it, to the trust economy that we rely on to keep the modern world running, to our ultimate achievement in abstraction and sympathetic magic—money—I hope to wrestle with the largest questions of what the collapse means, and what can we see about the system we've created that underlies everything we do. I'm speaking with experts from that world now, from financiers to hedge fund traders to me if you have expertise in these areas and would like to talk.

Finance is a lens we use to define our world, and in doing so we become subject to the world we've created, bound to the laws we lay down. I'm hoping to use each culture to illuminate the other in an honest attempt to find, between the seemingly primitive and the achingly modern, a human answer.

That's the hope. It is terribly early yet, and there's much to do.

I will be performing early versions of this work across Australia, with performances in Perth, Melbourne, and Sydney during March—as dates are locked down I will update with complete details.

When I return to America in March we'll be presenting an early version of the piece in conjunction with a run of
HOW THEATER FAILED AMERICA at Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles—details are available at my site.

Be seeing you,


PS:  A life on the road: we are now in Seattle, where we perform
MONOPOLY! this Friday night and INVINCIBLE SUMMER this Saturday, and then up to Vancouver for the PuSh Festival. This will be the only time these monologues will be done in the region, so if you're so inclined, buy tickets now before it is too late: