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A Journal of Our Plague Year

Review by Brendan McCall
What the Fuck Just Happened?
Created & performed by Mike Daisey
Friday, 2 April 2021
Frigid New York at The Kraine Theater
(live performance and live-stream)

With less than 20% of New Yorkers fully vaccinated, Governor Cuomo announced that the city’s venues could resume presenting live performances again at one-third capacity beginning on 2 April. And while some, after being bombarded with advertisements on social media, certainly purchased tickets for an Off-Broadway production with zero performers, what about other kinds of theater? How to ensure people amidst the continuing reality of a pandemic can safely show up at a tiny black box with limited resources but which also tends to incubate theatrical artistry which is daring, experimental, and bold?

Enter the Frigid New York team, who addressed these challenges with precision and aplomb. For the 22 audience members who attended their one-night-only show live on Good Friday, a battery of protocols needed to be observed: from documentation of completed vaccination (ie two weeks since the last shot), to wearing masks and socially distancing inside the Kraine Theater´s intimate East Village venue. All theatrical staff were fully vaccinated, too, as was the evening’s sole performer–veteran monologist Mike Daisey.

Superficially, one might argue that “not much is happening” in Daisey’s show, that “it’s just a guy sitting there and talking.” Reminiscent of Spaulding Gray, the production values here are simple and stark: Daisy never rises from his seat at the simple wooden table, moving only occasionally to drink from a glass of water or dab the sweat away from his forehead with a handkerchief. Yet the 99-minute What the Fuck Just Happened? is absolutely riveting.

I got to see the show from my apartment because the Kraine also live-streamed the show to over 500 “ghosts”, as Daisey referred to those viewing this brilliant and searing work through our screens. Like many moments in What the Fuck…, Daisey´s seemingly extemporaneous talk belies deep structure: images and themes appear, withdraw, then arise again, providing new connections. The ghosts are not just those sitting at home, witnessing this unfolding monologue, but also the presence of everyone lost during the last 13 months (and counting) of the plague.

How to parse the eloquence of the script from the power of the performance, when the author delivers his own work? Early on, Daisey confesses that, originally, the piece would be called a loud moan blending rage and despair. But how to shape that primal cry into any kind of coherent meaning, when all you have are words? With gallows humor, outrage, and pointed silences, What the Fuck… is Daisey´s attempt to describe the unimaginable which is maddeningly all-too-familiar, to articulate some of the anxiety, stress, and trauma that he experienced and witnessed. His story is both highly personal, as well as a kind of community chronicle journaling the major seasons of our pandemic year.

Daisey begins What the Fuck… not in 2020, but in 2019. We dive into the everyday nuances of his and his girlfriend´s lives in Brooklyn, a pre-pandemic prologue of professional gigs, research for a new show about climate collapse, and a serious bedbug problem. By opening a window into his life during “the before times,” we can identify with what we were thinking and feeling, too, before everything changed in March 2020. Especially as a New Yorker, Daisey´s description of those first fearful months of the shelter-in-place were haunting: the compulsive use of hand-sanitizer, the banging of pots and pans at seven o´clock, the incessant sound of sirens´ wail from ambulances.

What the Fuck… continues to walk us through the major chapters of the previous year, up to the previous moment: the murder of George Floyd, the heated 2020 Presidential Election, the run-off in Georgia, the insurrection on 6 January on the nation´s Capitol. Even briefly re-visiting them chronologically recalls profound fatigue, perhaps because we are still reeling in their aftermath. Derek Chauvin, the former police officer who kneeled on the neck of an unarmed Black man in Minneapolis last May, is currently on trial. A significant percentage of Republicans still believe that the 2020 election was “stolen” from Donald Trump. New voter restriction laws were quickly passed in Georgia, and the armed mob who broke into the Capitol building three months ago have yet to begin their trial.

And the pandemic itself continues, along with the debate over whether masks or social distancing are even necessary for a “really bad flu” which has killed nearly 600,000 Americans so far. Towards the end of What the Fuck Just Happened?, a fully-vaccinated Mike Daisey describes the ordinary magic of attending a small dinner party recently with other fully-vaccinated friends in Brooklyn. He describes how easy it is to slide back into pre-pandemic routines and ways of thinking, as if it were all behind us. And this ease, this impulse to forget and “return to normal”, is perhaps this powerful show´s message and warning. There is no vaccine for fascism, Daisey reminds us. What did we learn, from this experience, if anything? Did this crisis provide us with the courage to make the long overdue changes necessary in our society–from health care, climate change, systemic racism, democratic governance? Humbly, quietly, the show ends with uncertainty–because this plague and all of our discontents remains far from over.

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