Creator and performer Mike Daisey has stirred up quite a bit of ‘is it theatre or journalism?’ controversy with his latest monologue, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which has had performances across the country. His show makes a return engagement to Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, DC where he debuted several of his works and has a long-standing history. I missed this particular show the first time around (though I had seen Daisey’s other three monologues at Woolly including the outstanding If You See Something, Say Something), so I was curious to see the piece of theatre that attracted so much positive and negative attention.
As stated by many press outlets, several moments in the show, directed by long-time Daisey collaborator Jean-Michele Gregory, have been rewritten since its original incarnation. It still chronicles the history of Apple and its manufacturing practices in China. Though in some ways it is Daisey’s love letter to technology (and Apple products in particular) it is also quite critical of how Steve Jobs and others made the Apple company what it is. In effect, it is part theatre and part social criticism, which is, of course, what Daisey does best.
Coming from a sociology academic background in undergrad, I was intrigued by Daisey’s discussion of human behavior, globalization, the role of technology in society, bureaucracy, and corporatism. However, as a self-professed theatre geek, I was also highly enthralled with his one man performance of the thought-provoking material. Given that this is a theatre review, I am choosing to mostly focus on the latter element.
Put simply, Daisey, regardless of what one thinks of his social views, is a compelling performer. Well aware of the power of the theatre to entertain and highlight possibilities for social change in the world, he offers an engaging and passionate performance. What’s particularly impressive is his conversational approach with the audience. He’s never lost in his words and thoughts as a monologist, and he’s visibly acutely aware that theatre is an experience not only for the performer, but also the audience. Although he proved to be an adept conversationalist in past productions, his seemingly innate ability in this area was never more apparent than watching him perform this particular monologue. Although he can be a bit self-indulgent at times when making a point, his voice is a dynamic and powerful instrument to convey thought, emotion, and intent at loud and soft decibels.
Daisey is most effective in performing this monologue (from an acting point of view) not when he is discussing his clear love for Apple products, but when he examines the plethora of suicides that occur at the mammoth Foxconn (where Apple has a production facility) in the industrial province of Sichuan in southwestern China. Focusing on one individual’s death, near the end of the performance, he effectively relates how global practices influence the life of one, and how the opposite relationship can also, at times, be at play. His emotional delivery of this portion of the script was a highlight.
Mike also deserves kudos for ensuring what could have been a depressing examination of labor practices has moments of laughter. His discussion of the use of Power Point among Chinese businessmen brought a grin to my face as someone who has suffered ‘death by Power Point’ on more than one occasion in my day job. That little vignette also demonstrated commonalities across Chinese and American cultures and the powerful role of globalized commerce today’s world. This kind of discussion, although at its surface tangential to the Daisey’s subject matter at hand, would likely have left the audience saying “huh?” (as to its point) if executed by a lesser performer. However, Daisey’s way with words, and his acute understanding of what they mean and how ideas relate to one another, made this portion of the monologue work quite well.
Overall, I’d highly recommend this performance. Those looking for splashy theatre won’t find it here, but it is an engaging production. Controversial? Perhaps. But it’s certainly thought-provoking and well executed. Woolly Mammoth, always at the forefront of pushing the boundaries of DC’s dynamic and promising theatre scene, deserves much praise for bringing Mike Daisey back to the area.