Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Review of Mike Daisey's The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs

(UPDATE 3/17/12: By now if you've seen this page you've heard about The Retraction where This American Life, after airing a portion of "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," realized much of what Daisey said on stage was not true. Read my reaction "Mike Daisey Insults Both Theater and Journalism.")

Last night Mike Daisey premiered his new play “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” at Woolly Mammoth. It may have actually been the best play I’ve seen in years. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but after watching eight Fringe festival plays (including one that was a monologue), I’m convinced there aren’t too many others out there can keep you entertained for three hours merely by talking. But not just entertained. By the end of you will look at your beloved Apple products differently.

The format follows a familiar path that Daisey uses in his monologues, he tells two stories in sections: one a historical tale, the other a personal narrative of travel, both of which will eventually intersect. “The Agony and the Ecstasy” continues themes Daisey was exploring in his last outing “The Last of the Cargo Cults” about the “stuffness” of our material goods – items that Daisey shares the audience’s enthusiasm for. But in “Agony and Ecstasy” Daisey is on much more familiar ground: the coolness of Apple products, and their ultimate costs. In a really funny narrative, Daisey tells the history of Steve Jobs and Apple. Maybe you’ve heard the familiar story before? The charisma of Steve, the geekiness but technical genius of Wozniak? Someone behind me was quietly tracking the key points in the history like “Sculley” and “NeXT.”

But Daisey addresses the issue of who’s geek cock is bigger. It may be yours, he concedes -- although he does brag that used to fieldstrip and clean his MacBook Pro for fun the way other generations cleaned their glocks. But he tells the unknown geek in the audience that when you get over your social problems you can get on stage and narrate your own history. For now this is Daisey’s tale.

It’s a pretty interesting tale too, one that almost makes me wonder if plays can be their own form of journalism. Coming on the heels of the Jobs press conference where he finally admitted there were some technical problems with the iPhone’s design the play feels so relevant its steams with freshness. (The press conference wasn’t mentioned, but Daisey’s monologues do change over time. He may add a bit about it later). Daisey, an Apple fanatic, spends hours on the Mac rumor boards and eventually learns of an iPhone user who found that his phone came with photos stored inside. They were test pictures at the factory, which lead Daisey to wonder where this factory was? Who were these people who built the cool shit we all rely on?

This eventually leads him to the Chinese city of Shenzhen, a city so large that almost no one in the West had even heard of it. Shenzhen is where everything we play on, call from, or type on is made. The Apple products and the Dell products are made on assembly lines next to each other.

But it is the workers in the factory who interest Daisey. He tells the story of a manager who lost one of 13 iPhone prototypes and instead of getting his house raided, ala Gizmodo, he is beaten by his employer for 12 hours and then told he will be turned over to the police the next day. He chooses to commit suicide. But before he does he posts messages on the internet which is how the story begins to leak out about the treatment of the factory employees who make our stuff.

Daisey, against advice from journalist friends who work in China and Hong Kong, travels to Shenzhen with a fixer. He’s there when the news of the 12 factory suicides at the “iPad factory” becomes international news. So he stands outside the factory and talks to whomever will talk to him. And they do talk. He finds a 12-year-old, 13-year-old, and a 14-year-old girl who work there. He hears what happens to a worker after a 32-hour shift on the floor. He sees the sleeping conditions of beds stacked like cordwood in a 10 x 10 foot room.

While a three hour play without an intermission might seem long, any discomfort ones feels sitting that long immediately goes away when you hear what happens to the human body after sitting down and making the same repetitive motions for 12 hours straight.

When the New York Times publishes its story about the suicides, he says he can “pull it apart like taffy” and recognizes each and every press release every quoted person’s statement comes from. There was no real reporting done, he was the only “media” there and he was just pretending to be a journalist.

Daisey’s message is not that his audience should have known these stories. He’s opinionated but his message does not come off like a polemic. He didn’t know these facts and he stood in line for an iPad on the first day like everyone else. The question is now that you know, what are you going to do about it?

At the end of the night, Daisey said that he will be taking his show on tour, which includes a five-city tour of India. I have to wonder what Indian workers will think of their Chinese counterparts and what stories might get added to the show when it returns to DC in Spring 2011.

I would also pay a lot of money to see what audiences in San Francisco make of Daisey's tales.

1 comment:

Sean said...

Why did you remove my honest comment? I was there for the premiere.