I’m not entirely sure how to classify what I saw from Mike Daisey tonight at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, but it’s really not necessary that I do so other than to say that it was a riveting, aggravating, and deeply disturbing piece of theatre. It was also often hilarious. In The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, the veteran monologist and “master storyteller” (according to the The New York Times) previews his new political screed/self-deprecating send-up/performance piece for DC audiences. I’m grateful I was there to witness it.
Daisey’s wildly exuberant performance, conducted entirely from a single chair on the Woolly stage, intertwines the story of his personal obsession with Apple products with the story of his investigation into their troubling source in Shenzhen, China. The monologue ricochets from very funny accounts of Daisey’s own “geekery” (e.g, posting on message boards at night in his underwear and disassembling his laptop to clean it lovingly every day) to descriptions of the brutal reality of work in a Foxconn/Apple factory, including 16 hour shifts and a staggering suicide rate for workers. There was a moment in the performance tonight when the audience fell into a stunned silence when Daisey described showing an iPad to a former iPad assembly worker whose hand had been mangled in a machine press. Never having seen the finished version of the product on whose assembly line he had been maimed, the man used his deformed hand to open the screen and claimed that it was “like a kind of magic.” This kind of heartbreaking irony runs through the performance and leaves us with few easy answers. It would be easy to blame only the brutal labor policies facing Apple factory workers in China, but Daisey rightfully spreads culpability to the users of these products and the disposable, consumer-driven culture they foster and represent.
That I am now even writing about this profound topic through a blog (an inherently disposable form of criticism) on a MacBook is no small irony to me. The awareness of that irony is at least a partial result of Mr. Daisey’s performance and his gonzo investigative journalism. Though I find it difficult to classify the form of his presentation, it is absolutely impossible for me to classify (and in so doing, compartmentalize) the emotional effect of his presentation. His performance, however you can describe it, will now resonate in various forms each time i check my iPhone or open my laptop or post on this site. This resonance is what is necessary about theatre, no matter what convention you fit it into.