BWW Reviews: Mike Daisey's THE AGONY AND ECSTASTY OF STEVE JOBS Forces Examination of 'What we already know'
Mike Daisey describes himself as an "actor, commentator, playwright, and general layabout" on his official website. He may be all of these things, but the word that best describes him is "storyteller". Daisey performed his solo act, THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY OF STEVE JOBS, this week to a sold out crowd at the Byham Theater. Perched behind a single wooden desk, with no set to speak of and no amplification, Daisey had no trouble keeping the tech-savvy audience mesmerized throughout his 120+ minute dialogue.
Throughout the evening, Daisey weaves together two parallel, converging storylines that culminate with a call to action two hours later. The first of the intertwining vignettes focuses on Daisey's experiences in Shenzen, China, where he bravely undertook an investigation of deplorable labor practices at the behemoth Foxconn factory, employing a half-million Chinese laborers on the assembly line for iPads, iPhones and other electronic devices. As Daisey shares story after story of the experiences of he and his Chinese hired interpreter, he frequently bounces back and forth to what is essentially a history of Apple Computer, his own self-professed obsession with all things Apple, including a no-holds barred look at the life and legacy of Apple's founder, Steve Jobs.
Daisey is hilariously funny, highly intelligent, and obviously passionate about the story that he is telling, and one can't help but wonder what he's going to say next as he occasionally turns the yellow-ruled tablet papers in front of him (that he never actually seems to refer to throughout his oration). He's very, very good at creating visual images - we see an image of Daisey as a young Apple fanboy in front of his Mac - "in a virtuous circle of light, I and the machine." We see clear images painted by Daisey of Steve Wozniak, ever an innocent code-generating geek, and Jobs, an omnipotent visionary egotist making snap decisions about business, and about the "bozos" and "geniuses" that he encountered. We cannot forget the image that Daisey paints of a Chinese factory worker, running his deformed hand (gnarled from poor factory work conditions) over an iPad's glowing screen - the first time he'd ever seen one turned on despite working on its assembly line, saying "it's a thing of magic". And as the storylines converge, Daisey leaves us with perhaps the most disturbing image, imploring us to imagine the “blood welling up between the keys” of the devices that we use, unthinkingly, on a daily basis.
As the evening came to and end, and Daisey's message became more impassioned, I actually felt a growing sense of frustration. I felt frustrated because in my heart I knew that what he was saying was true; Daisey even states that he's "not telling us anything we didn't already know - at some level". But, and perhaps this is the lazy American in me speaking -- the lazy American with a massive pile of electronics, most of which no doubt were hand made by overworked, underpaid, underage Chinese workers somewhere in Shenzhen -- but, I wondered.. "what am I to do?" I knew that as soon as the show was over that I would flip on my iPhone and check the time, send a few texts, and check my email, and that I'd probably do so with a clean conscience, or probably better said, a conscience that lives in a continued state of denial.
I pondered this dilemma as I exited the theater, and while I'm normally self-absorbed to the extent that I decline handouts from strangers, I felt compelled to take the handout that the theater usher offered me. Entitled "The Rest of the Story is in Your Hands", the handout explains that change is possible, and provides instructions for: Speaking to the Industry (including Apple CEO Tim Cook's email), Thinking Differently About Upgrading, Connecting and Educating Yourself, and Telling Others... spreading the virus.
I'll take Daisey up on that fourth topic - I'm glad to have the chance to tell others about what I saw and what I learned. Go see Mike Daisey speak if you ever have the chance. If you don't, read about his efforts at http://mikedaisey.blogspot.com.
Afternote: Just two weeks ago This American Life broadcast an episode based entirely around an excerpt from Daisey's monologue, becoming the show's most downloaded episode in history. A week after the show was broadcast, Apple made an abrupt announcement. After years of stonewalling and silence, they released the full list of their suppliers, and agreed to outside, independent monitoring of working conditions in the factories they use. It is not everything, but it is a small step down the right road.