An Apple Turnover From Mike Daisey’s Oven
One of the more compelling responses to Mike Daisey‘s hilarious, blistering monologue, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs (at Seattle Rep through May 22; tickets), comes from a surprising source: the “forgotten” Apple genius, Steve Wozniak.
The Woz told the New York Times: “I will never be the same after seeing that show.” Saying he was brought to tears, Wozniak offered this thumbnail review: “Mike was living the pain of what he was describing as he told it.”
There are (at least) two seamy underbellies that Daisey exposes in Agony, though one, questionable tech labor practices is easier for media to encapsulate, and thus shine their little light on.
Daisey’s latest work grew out of his fanboy curiosity to see how how his Apple products are made–nothing simpler, right? Apple encourages obsessive attention to its details, and Daisey provides his bona fides by timing how long it takes him to field-strip his Mac laptop.
But no, a visit to the Foxconn plant, which has had a problem with employee suicides credited to stress and overwork (the initial problem being a refusal to recognize the problem), is anything but simple as Daisey learned. If you’re Wired, you get a chaperoned walk-through by Burson-Marsteller, who specialize in the immaculate conceptions of synthetic grassroots movements.
Rookie citizen journalist that he is, Daisey went to China anyway and parked himself outside the gates of multiple factories for weeks to see what he could see. He told City Art’s Mark Baumgarten (in the authoritative interview on Agony): “The first two hours of my first day, I met 14-, 13- and 12-year-old children who work at the fucking plant, so it doesn’t fucking take much.”
Daisey, who speaks extemporaneously, working only from an outline, can deliver jokes like a stand-up comic, inform like your favorite teacher, and weigh perspectives as if he’s got the Nicomachean Ethics in his hip pocket. What makes him inimitable is the facility with which he weaves all three modes together. A large part of that tapestry-work is courtesy of his long-time director, collaborator, and wife, Jean-Michele Gregory.
He explains to the Rep that “generally where a monologue emerges is where two obsessions are colliding,” and in Agony, the other obsession is…obsession. There’s Daisey’s, with Apple (and gadgetry in general), there’s Steve Jobs’ with Apple (and design domination), and there’s our work culture’s, with its celebration of “laser-like focus.”
As an ethicist, Daisey first paints a glowing picture of obsession’s gifts, before speaking up for the niggling doubt, and here he enjoys himself contrasting Apple’s advances and sophistication with its laggard, Borg-like competitors. This also is where the Woz enters the narrative, and where Daisey starts to count the cost of a singular, overriding priority (it’s a point he’s made earlier with an investigation of WalMart’s “always low prices”). Given Wozniak’s treatment as Jobs becomes Apple’s avatar of amazement, the working conditions at Foxconn look like ramification of a founder’s principles, not an accident.
Daisey and Gregory’s gamble is that live theatre can be an adequate container for the emotional and cognitive dissonance he’s stoking–he doesn’t offer catharsis, as such. He’s circumspect about keeping the outrage his outrage, it’s never assumed. Maybe you share in his upset, maybe you don’t. But in an ironic way, the show recapitulates Apple’s “1984″ ad: a lone figure disrupts the carefully produced image, and–though you don’t think of this at first–the audience is left with the sharp slivers of what used to be belief in the way things are.