The lights dim, and a noise familiar to Mac fanatics everywhere fills the theater: a drawn-out booong, Apple’s signature startup sound.
With that begins Mike Daisey’s sometimes sardonic, sometimes startlingly truthful monologue, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” Daisey, well-known for his work, masterfully interweaves the history of how Apple became the powerhouse that it is today with his explorations of the Chinese factories and workers who built the electronics that so many flock to own.
Daisey’s approach is simple yet effective. Seated at a desk on stage with nothing but a few pieces of paper, a small towel and a glass of water, he immediately hooks the audience with his booming voice. It takes skill to talk for nearly two hours with such authority, but he does it with ease.
But more than Daisey’s mannerisms are at play here. He connects quickly with the audience, who chuckle as he describes himself as a worshipper in the House of Mac. He portrays the mindset of tech consumers, the eager people who become convinced after a Steve Jobs keynote speech that they need an iPod Nano instead of an iPod Mini and that Apple holds the key to the future.
The laughs result from recognizing a kinship with Daisey’s devotion to the brand and its devices. Yes, of course, those bulbous, colored Apple computers made a decade ago were the future then, just as the iPad is the future now. Who are we to question Apple and the technological messiah known as Steve Jobs?
If the funny retelling of Apple’s history draws the audience in, it’s Daisey’s revelations of the Chinese workers who handcraft the company’s products that capture their minds. Daisey describes how he saw a story on an Apple news website that posted photos from a newly arrived iPhone, making him wonder about the workers who could have taken them.
He finds himself on a journey to Shenzhen, China, where the company that creates all of Apple’s products is based. The stories that he finds are tragic. A man’s hand is crushed as he assembles iPads. A child laborer, just 13, cleans Daisey’s iPhone screen as a joke when the two meet up outside the factory. The factory installs nets around the building to catch the workers who try to commit suicide. These are dark tales, the tales consumers don’t hear. Daisey likens his own cognizance to a religious devotee who has begun to think.
But who’s to blame for this ignorance? Is it journalists, who Daisey said he expected to find in Shenzhen but didn’t? Is it Apple, the company that pays such particular attention to detail that it couldn’t possibly have missed these, the most important details of them all? Or is it the consumer himself, so driven by his need to own that he has never considered the cost of the devices?
It turns out to be a mixture of the three. And in this monologue, it’s Daisey’s job to plant the seed of knowledge and show his fellow devotees the light.
In an interview about the show, Daisey said his fanaticism is dead. He can no longer be an early adopter of Apple’s latest piece. “I’m broken about technology,” he said. “I can’t do that anymore. I did love it very much.”
During the show’s run at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Daisey plans to advocate for Congressional hearings about the work conditions at the factories that he visited.
The show runs at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company through April 17. Tickets are available at woollymammoth.net.
Correction: March 30, 2011
The article mistakenly stated that actor Mike Daisey found the photos of Chinese workers on his iPhone. He saw the photos on an Apple news website. In addition, the child laborer described was 13, not 14.