In the event that you missed seeing the incomparable sit-down comedy/raconteur/political observer, social activist/dramatic entertainer Mike Daisey earlier this season when he turned his sights on the empire built by Steve Jobs, you are getting a second chance. The Public Theater is bringing him back for a repeat engagement beginning Tuesday, January 31, through Sunday, March 4.
Whether or not you have read the recent biography on Jobs, you should grab this opportunity to get a fresh but also troubling perspective of the man who was able to “make people want things they didn’t know they needed.” Told from a well-researched as well as from a personal adventure, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” is one of the best of Daisey’s serio-comic lectures: number 16 if I’ve counted correctly.
Except for the fact that Daisey is a large man with a large round face who perspires profusely and uses a black handkerchief to wipe his brow as his main prop, his delivery is mostly from a chair behind a table upon which are notes that he flips over but doesn’t really use. His presentation is emphatic and dynamic, carefully calculated and calibrated, under the expert direction of his wife, Jean-Michelle Gregory, to keep you attentive even as you are entertained. Notwithstanding the carefully documented facts and figures that plump up the text, it is his caustic opinions and uncompromised observations about his revered and notably rebellious subject that give his lecture its snap and crackle.
Evidently no amount of laudatory and salutary commentary from others about the late Steve Jobs, whether it be his contribution to advancing technology or his concession to outright profiteering, was about to sway or deter Daisey from his course of action: to steer clear of prevailing sentiment and dive directly into the belly of the beast — the Foxconn Technology Group’s enormous manufacturing center in Shenzhen, China, where Jobs insinuated himself as a businessman. With the help of an interpreter, he gained access and observed first hand the appallingly inhumane working conditions that are the norm for thousands of Chinese workers. He was able to get interviews with a few of the workers, many in their teens and younger, who turn out the gadgets we have in our pockets and on our desks.
Whether it was the stories he heard about the number of suicides reported at Foxconn or the more numerous reports about the permanent crippling of fingers and hands from repetitive activity, Daisey certainly knew there was a provocative primary story as well as a number of perplexing underreported stories behind an industry created by a uniquely brilliant man with a vision. Most of us don’t think or care about how things are made and by whom and at what cost. We only know or want to know that they are affordable and that they do the job. Daisey did want to know more, certainly after reading articles about Foxconn and, indeed, China’s formidable role in mass production for the mass-consuming world market.
Apparently, all the imposing Daisey needed to get his story was a colorful aloha shirt and a few scraps of paper in lieu of business cards to worm his way inside the awesome plant with its posted guards and security safeguards. Believe it or not, the experience for him as well as it is for us is good for quite a few laughs. Don’t think that this is purely a hatchet job on Jobs or the monster corporation that he founded, but rather an eye-widening glimpse into what it took for the unconventional Jobs to regain his status after being ousted from his own company and coming back stronger and with more at stake than before.
Daisey’s admiration for what Jobs accomplished is as unqualified as is his awe for the innovative, sometimes purposefully self-defeating products about which he mines plenty of humor. Keeping the poignant plight of the Chinese workers in his sights, he also gives an edge to the funny, almost ironical, side of his adventure, one that takes its place alongside such previous acclaimed monologues as “The Last Cargo Cult” (the effects of American materialism on the natives of a remote South Pacific Island who live at the base of a volcano), and “21 Dog Years: Doing Time at Amazon.com” (living the American dream as a dot.com millionaire).
You can feel he is stretching his two-hour story about Jobs and Apple a bit with a digression about Microsoft. But you can’t beat Daisey as a story-teller or (in this instance) as a critical observer of an incredible man and of the entire Apple family. You should know that he makes no attempt to single out Apple as the sole villain when it comes to the U.S.’s outsourcing policies.
If we are, as Daisey infers, in somewhat of a rut by being persuaded/forced to use products in our daily life that are being made in far away places by over-worked, underpaid people in factories run by a misalliance of corporate profiteers, he is also indirectly making us re-think about how future technology might also proceed in a more ethical world society, but not necessarily to the exclusion of the “i” society. I did notice a certain hesitancy of many in the audience to not immediately grab for their iPhone, iPod, or iPad during the applause at the end. Perhaps it was in deference to a terrific and informing performance that was worth thinking about before the urge to text took over.
At the end of Daisey’s bio in the program it says, “He recently premiered his 24-hour monologue “All the Hours in the Day,” an epic story that spans the globe, at the TBA Festival in Portland, Oregon.” I would hope that a “get on and get off” pass comes with the purchase of a ticket. When and if it comes to New York, the ticket should also give the holder the option to digress at will.
Note: This review was written during the original run of “Jobs.” It is great to be able to share my enthusiasm now that it is returning. ***
“The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” Tuesday, January 31, to Sunday March 4, Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York. $75 to $85. 212-539-8500.