Monologuist Mike Daisey has a bone (or several) to pick with his grade school history lessons. In his 18-part show “A People’s History,” which begins Friday at Arena Stage as part of the 2019 Capital Fringe Festival, he compares and contrasts two takes on American history: the textbook he used at his rural Maine high school and self-described socialist historian Howard Zinn’s more representative “A People’s History of the United States.” Seeing the vast differences in the two texts helped clarify for Daisey how much nuance is inevitably left out of any retelling of history. “The story of our nation is the story of great men prosecuting a series of wars, and by making the focus be in those areas, you can sculpt a history that tells the story you’d like to tell,” says Daisey, 43, who adds that the goal of his 30-hour narrative is to arrive at a more complex understanding of our nation’s past.
Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW; Fri. through July 21, $35 for the first performance you attend, $20 for subsequent performances.
How did you come up with the idea for this show?
I had this core idea that I wanted to use [Zinn’s book] but I didn’t want to abridge it. That meant that the show needed to be epic. The secondary text is my U.S. history book from my high school. There’s a third history that reflects off both, which is the history we experience now.
Why do those two texts make sense for comparison?
What it mostly reveals is how much of the history we’re taught is a story that we would like to hear us tell to ourselves. Most of American history as we traditionally teach it eradicates the existence of minorities, people of color, women. As a monologuist, I have an opportunity to create a living reflection on these things.
How has reading your high school textbook as an adult helped you reframe your childhood experiences in school?
What I discovered is a lot of the questions I had then, I can see now why I had those questions. I remember how they taught the Red Scare. The question I always had was, why was everyone so afraid of communism? When you go into the actual history, the writers have chosen to remove decades of anarchist uprisings and socialist movements. If you omit and minimize those things, then it doesn’t make sense.
What would be the ideal textbook for students today to learn from?
It would be pretty amazing if they actually drew from texts, plural. A lot of the core problem of any class environment is the idea that there is a book that can teach you the entirety of history.
Journalists have been asking you about your show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” while you’re promoting your other work. [Daisey admitted to fabricating personal anecdotes for the theatrical monologue.] What have you learned from reliving that experience?
I’ve learned a tremendous amount about myself. None of it has been from journalists writing about it. I’ve already done full-length monologues about this incident. I’ve talked about it more than any public person has ever talked about public shaming. I did that work myself.
Have you talked to any of your high school teachers about the new show?
I did a number of years ago get in touch with my history teacher Mr. Harville, who appears in the monologue. I like to think he would be appalled at some of the history that I have to tell, but that’s not really my fault. History is, in fact, appalling.