To say that The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs by Mike Daisey is a theatrical monologue about labor abuses makes it sound like some stodgy, muckraking lecture from a century ago. Far from it. This lively, controversial one-man show is eye-opening and spell-binding.
Daisey, who has often performed as the solitary narrator, is an investigative journalist — a kind of theatrical Michael Moore. In this riveting new 16th Street Theater production, Lance Baker plays the witty and wired narrator.
Baker comes chatting up the aisle, then takes his seat in the middle of the open, unadorned stage at a table with just a few pages of notes and a coffee mug full of water.
He's a well-paced raconteur, making his points swiftly, conversationally. Though simply sitting in his chair, facing forward, he's captivating and intense, in addition to being laugh-out-loud funny.
At an hour and 45 minutes with no intermission, this monologue never feels too long. And though much of it is disturbing, what he's got to say is not just a guilt-inducing downer.
Baker, who is both the director and sole performer portraying Mike Daisey, erases any notion that storytelling might be a lost art. He's a skillful stand-up comic who just doesn't stand up — and he's quite funny, such as when he portrays the noisy screech of an early dot-matrix printer or describes his intense passion for every new bit of technology.
The author is a self-identified techno-geek. The ecstasy part of his show's title is the result of the narrator's lifelong love affair with Apple products, which started in his youth when a 1980s Apple computer was given to his family by a wealthy uncle. They were all in such awe of it that it got its own "computer room."
Daisey remains obsessively attached to Apple products and gushes about the late Steve Jobs' skill and intellect. Jobs was a visionary who spiritually fathered a whole generation of techno-nerds. But the playwright also recognizes that Jobs was a ruthless genius, a demanding, even diabolical boss. It's Daisey's admitted love for all things Apple, however, that makes his perception of the company's darker shadows especially scathing and effective.
He interweaves his fascinating story of Steve Jobs' ascendancy in the tech world with the harrowing story of his own trip to the mega-city of Shenzhen in southern China, where he pretends to be an American businessman to gain access to the vast factory. Here he discovers the agony of many hundreds of thousands of workers in the massive plant, Foxconn, a place very few of us have even heard of but where over half of all consumer electronics in the world is produced.
He says the gray polluted air hits you upon arrival "like a booted foot on your chest." In this place over 430,000 people, cruelly mistreated, work 70-plus hours a week in conditions that destroy their health. In large projected images behind the narrator, we see giant nets stretched outside the factory windows to stop the increasing number of employees who are committing suicide by leaping to their deaths. A mammoth cafeteria feeds 10,000 workers at each quick sitting.
We see disturbing photos showing thousands of workers bent over on their assembly line, performing tiny tasks in the making of iPhones, iPods, and iPads — though many of these people have never actually seen or held the finished product. Because of the nonstop, repetitive nature of their labor, the workers' hands often grow painfully useless, rendering them unemployable. Scores of replacements are always on hand, however, awaiting every job that opens up.
This one-man play drew national attention last year when it was found to contain some distortions or exaggerations used for greater dramatic effect. So the playwright-performer was forced to make a few cuts when he could not verify all of his claims. It's still awfully intense.
There's a funny subplot in which Daisey meets with Apple's heavy-set co-founder, Steve Wozniak, whom he describes as a great "autistic bear" who guzzles Mountain Dew as he works.
It's chilling to learn how our casual purchases of cellphones or computers can have such a negative impact on the lives of so many people on the other side of the world. I'm sure most of us realize our iPhones are not molded by elves and fairies out of rainbows and moonbeams, yet we probably assume our tech stuff is produced on some robotic assembly line — certainly not "hand-made" in such hellish sweatshop conditions.
Some may question why Apple is being singled out as if they were the only tech company exploiting foreign workers. Others might be put off by Daisey's slightly preachy tone when he demands social responsibility. As audience members make their exit they're given a handout suggesting options for action.
Mac Vaughey oversees the elegant lighting, and Jesse Gaffney designed the Spartan setting. The sound and the multimedia projections are produced by Joe Court. Mallory Bass is the stage manager.
I love a show that causes me to see things differently. Here we witness the soul-numbing truth of Steve Jobs' real legacy.
This work is not just a rant about how the former CEO of Apple and his obsessions shape our lives. In his engaging performance, Baker amuses us with his stories about computer culture, then disturbs us with its cost in human suffering.
Doug Deuchler, a longtime educator, is an Oak Parker who, when not reviewing community theater for Wednesday Journal, is a stand-up comic, a local tour guide and docent, and author of several books about Oak Park and neighboring communities.
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