From the print edition
You’ve just received your new iPhone and its purported megabytes of empty digital space. You plan to fill it with messages and photos of your friends, family and cat, but to your surprise, your new gadget is already occupied. It contains photos of the phone’s birthplace in a Chinese factory.
When monologist Mike Daisey heard that this actually happened to someone, he was intrigued, and he went to China in 2010 to investigate the source of the world’s beloved Apple products. What he found became the subject of his play, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” After seeing the Little Theatre Group’s iteration of Daisey’s play, audience members will never look at their iPhones or MacBooks the same way.
Friday night just 25 seats were filled, with double that available at the Laurence Olivier Theatre, a modern, concrete affair with a basement Shakespeare bar. As the lights dimmed and the stage lit up, five actors shuffled on stage and took seats in chairs facing the audience. Director Pilar Saavedra-Vela divided the monologue among the actors, who took turns portraying the narrator Daisey and other characters during the two-hour production.
The narrators took the audience from the college-dropout days of Steve Jobs to his development of Apple, and then they explored Daisey’s own fascination with technology, experience inside Chinese factories and discussions with Chinese union organizers.
“I found this piece touching, and so important to bring up,” said Saavedra-Vela, who had never before directed a play. “Everyone has so many items in their homes that are made in China. Technology is so pervasive in our lives and this piece helps us to see a side we’ve not contemplated.”
Controversy around the play surfaced after the public radio show “This American Life” aired an excerpt from the monologue. A journalist in China heard the show and reported that Daisey exaggerated aspects of his play, for instance, the armed guards surrounding the factories.
Only police and military personnel in China are allowed to carry weapons. Daisey later admitted to embellishing his play for theatrical effect, but the version presented by the Little Theater Group contained none of the inaccuracies.
Some theater critics have defended Daisey, arguing that even if details were misconstrued, the fact remains that employees in many electronics companies overseas experience terrible working conditions to deliver the world’s hundred-dollar iPods and thousand-dollar MacBooks. One particularly egregious example Daisey’s monologue highlights is that of N-hexane,the chemical used to clean the screens of electronic devices. It causes neurological damage, which the actors portrayed with vivid and disturbing tremors.
The play concludes with a call to action. Actors ask for those moved by the production to think twice about upgrading one’s electronics, to educate themselves about where products come from and to spread the messages of Daisey’s play.
Tom Humes, one of the actors, said this work is more like a documentary and it has a different goal than the usual productions seen from the Little Theater Group. “Usually we want to make you laugh or cry, but with this one we want you to think,” he said. “This gives you a different look at the icon of Steve Jobs and the downside to his empire.”
The Little Theatre Group is staging the play for one more weekend at the Laurence Olivier Theatre in San José, at Avenida 2, Calle 28, next to the Sala Garbo, 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and at 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Call 8858-1446 or visit www.littletheatregroup.org