Monologuist Mike Daisey, perhaps still best known for his 2002 breakout 21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com, is performing his latest one-man theater piece The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at the Public Theater in a return engagement scheduled to last through March 4. The show, which is funny, enlightening, and moving in equal measure, gained a heap of well-deserved acclaim during its initial Public run this past autumn. If you missed it, I highly recommend you take advantage of this second chance to see one of the best shows of the season.
While poking fun at the Cult of Apple (of which he is himself a member) and offering an overview of how Steve Jobs took his place as one of history’s great innovators, Daisey ultimately uses Jobs and Apple as a way of confronting how America’s consumerist electronics obsession is hurting the Chinese workers who make our stuff. Daisey was developing and performing The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs before the technology icon’s passing, but Jobs’s death has not stopped Daisey from being honest about his belief that Apple’s leadership has knowingly failed to take steps to improve abominable working conditions in China, where hundreds of thousands of people assemble our cell phones, computers, mp3 players, and other gadgets. Underage labor, safety problems, long hours, and repetitive tasks that leave workers disabled are among the issues Daisey encountered when he traveled to China’s massive Foxconn plant. (A New York Times story called “In China, Human Costs are Built into an iPad”, published just over a week ago, showed that mainstream journalism is finally catching up with what Daisey has already been telling theater audiences for sometime now.)
It’s hard not to feel shamed as the lights come up at the end of The Agony and Ecstasy. Usually the first thing I do as I exit the theater is swiftly unpocket my cell phone and turn it on with one hand, grabbing the headphones to my iPod and inserting them into my ears with the other. This time, I stopped myself out of embarrassment. After all, I don’t want to be that person who raves about the cathartic, must-see show I just saw — and then completely misses the point.
Daisey isn’t just accusing his audience, though. He understands our feeling of helplessness, but emphasizes that it is important that we know what we’re complicit in. At the end of the performance, staff members pass out a sheet of paper that offers a list of things that we can all do to help, including contacting Apple and other electronics manufacturers with our concerns and putting the brakes on our tendency to constantly (unnecessarily) upgrade our technology.
Still, walking out of the theater, making a mental list of things I needed to buy on the way home, I felt a bit of despair knowing how many of those things probably come from China. One thing you can buy that is homegrown, though, is admission to a performance of The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.