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Mike Daisey's Trump-themed monologue launches new 'Happening' era for the Guthrie

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When the Guthrie Theater announced its Level Nine Initiative this spring, response was overwhelmingly positive — but there were skeptics. "Despite what you may see on Facebook or in the City Pages, the Guthrie is not a beacon of progressive values and radical practice," wrote Hannah Youngquist in the Twin Cities Daily Planet. "It’s just a big ol’ money-making machine."

Youngquist's piece reflected an understandable hesitance (even outright refusal) to accept the Guthrie, one of the biggest and most grandly established theaters in the country, as a site where the status quo can be challenged in any meaningful way. My sense, though, is that artistic director Joseph Haj is acutely aware of the strengths and limitations of his institution; while he espouses "progressive values" (in at least some sense of the term), he certainly hasn't promised to make the Guthrie "a beacon of radical practice."

Instead, I understand the Level Nine Initiative as a way for the Guthrie to turn some of its significant resources — not just money, but visibility and connections — toward engaging more meaningfully with the Twin Cities' diverse communities and latter-day social concerns. Haj is also aware that for the initiative to succeed, it can't just wall off the Dowling Studio as the designated zone of "community engagement." The initiative has to inform work throughout the theater. Easier said than done, yes, but my impression is that Haj is genuinely committed to the attempt.

Part of the initiative involves capacity for "happenings": Dowling Studio bookings made on relatively short notice, in response to current events. Last month, Carlyle Brown took to the Dowling Studio to perform his piece Acting Black. The next "happening" took place this past weekend, as monologist Mike Daisey came in from New York with The Trump Card. Tickets for both the Brown and Daisey performances were free.

Daisey is one of the monologue masters of his generation. He's earned acclaim for a number of shows, but his biggest splash (so to speak) in national headlines came in 2007, when dozens of people stood up and walked out of his performance at American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

A video that went viral captured Daisey's astonishment as a sizable chunk of the audience made its way to the door, with one man pausing to pour a bottle of water on the performer's notes. "Hey, do any of you people who are leaving want to stay and talk about this?" asked Daisey. No, they didn't. (It later emerged they were a Christian group from out of town, and may not have fully understood what they were signing up for.)

Only a few dozen members of the full Dowling Studio audience stayed on to talk about The Trump Card after Friday night's performance, but the low retention rate probably had more to do with the sprawling length of the piece — 140 minutes on Friday, with no intermission — than with any hesitance to discuss Daisey's critique of Trump and Trumpism.

Daisey pegged the audience early on, and he seemed to be largely accurate: Though there were some younger people, and some theater professionals who came on the basis of Daisey's reputation, the bulk of the crowd seemed to be white liberal Baby Boomers who are deeply troubled and confused by the ascendency of Donald Trump.

Accordingly, Daisey's approach is not simply to enumerate Trump's manifold offenses (that would make the show just "an encounter group," he said), but to examine the reasons for the Donald's success. Why were both the liberal and conservative establishments so surprised by primary voters' embrace of Trump?

Daisey's answer: Both Republicans and Democrats have underestimated the fury of working-class white voters like his mom (a janitor in Maine). Also, Daisey argues, we've failed to understand that fundamentally, Trump isn't a politician: He's a performer, and a gifted one. Daisey sees the tricks of his own trade in Trump's stump speeches, and he knows that when a piece is working, it doesn't really matter whether you're accurate or sincere. It means you're saying what people want to hear, and they'll reward you for it.

The Trump Card seemed to be, on Friday night, what the Guthrie audience wanted to hear — as evidenced by a talkback where the sharpest criticism Daisey (sitting alongside Haj and the show's director Isaac Butler) faced came from a man who thought the piece would have worked better if the story about Daisey's mother had been placed earlier in the monologue.

An older white woman thanked Daisey for putting her own feelings into words. A man of color said that Daisey had examined white privilege in a way he'd never seen a white performer do before. Someone, inevitably, wanted to know why there wasn't more mention of Bernie.

In other words, it was a night at the Guthrie. There was a show — a very good show — and then a talkback. Was it a "happening"? Well, even in the framework of a relatively conventional structure, there was an undeniable urgency to the proceedings. We weren't talking about an abstract character, or a long-past historical situation: We were trying to understand a man who has a very real chance of winning a presidential election two months from now.

Daisey was at the Guthrie to perform as an artist, but he was also there to bring a message, based on his year of closely studying Donald Trump: Americans, and people all around the world, should be very scared right now. No one disagreed.