Mike Daisey says he considers his current work, most notably The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, as a form of journalism. For anyone who has seen previous Daisey productions, that should come as no surprise. His latest play is a logical evolution for the artist-geek who has taken on Amazon, Bill Gates, and the American theater industry in previous monologues.
With Agony and Ecstasy, however, Daisey has moved to a new level of activism in a two-hour tirade against a global corporate culture that exploits Chinese workers while reaping enormous profits.
Although Daisey heaps special verbal abuse upon Steve Jobs and Apple (while admitting he’s an Apple addict), he acknowledges that many other electronics companies bear equal blame. Daisey closes the show, which is now playing at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, by urging the audience to email Jobs, who he says actually answers many of the missives audience members have sent. What Daisey doesn’t say is that Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak invited Daisey and his wife out to dinner after seeing the show in Berkeley.
Time will tell whether Apple changes any of its manufacturing practices as a result, given that the company insists that the factories they work with maintain humane conditions.
As in all of his productions, Daisey makes a compelling and physically imposing figure. Sitting at a table with a few notes and a glass of water, the heavyset Daisey commands the set, which evokes the spare design and iconic silver-white of Apple products. He begins to spew forth about a trip he made to Shenzhen, China’s tech manufacturing center. Only gradually does it become obvious that Daisey is on a tear here, and by the end of the two-hour nonstop rush of words the experience feels more like a political lecture than a theatrical presentation.
It’s a mark of Daisey’s storytelling and performing skill, however, that we are held rapt in a way no college professor can achieve. Interspersed with horrific stories of workers with mangled hands and 12-year-olds working 75 hours a week are Daisey’s observations about the small details that define an individual and a culture. His description of the way his Chinese translator pushes her glasses back with one finger or his own experience of nearly driving off a half-finished highway exit ramp capture a culture changing at breakneck speed. His elastic face can change from befuddlement to fury in a flash, provoking peals of laughter from the audience that give way almost immediately to shock.
The core of Daisey’s talent is his enormous curiosity about the world and his ability to convey through words the things that move him. Whether he is describing Foxconn, the world’s largest electronics manufacturer, or Steve Jobs’ management style (which an Apple employee likened to that of the King of France), Daisey brings an anger-infused bemusement to his accusation that we, as gadget-crazy consumers, are complicit in the exploitation he describes.
If all this sounds heavy and serious, be forewarned that it is. Daisey’s wacky, off-kilter way of looking at the world is on some display here, but there is a dark undertone that kills the jokes almost as soon as he’s made them. With The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, Mike Daisey has created political theater of the most powerful sort — an experience that makes us think deeply and, possibly, moves us to action about an issue we may never have considered as we read an e-book, downloaded an app, or surfed the web on a laptop.
If you go: The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs by Mike Daisey, through May 22 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St. Tickets cost $12-$59. Order by phone (206-443-2222) or online.
Note: Wednesday, May 18, Daisey will give a benefit performance of his celebrated How Theater Failed America, to provide funds for Intiman Theatre artists suddenly left without work they expected but for which they hadn't received contracts and won't get severance; the audience is invited to a post-performance discussion. Seattle Rep's Bagley Wright Theater. Tickets: $25.
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