The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at the Woolly Mammoth

23 March 2011

I went last night to see a preview of “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” which will run at the Woolly Mammoth theater in Washington through mid-April. When you open the program, you’re warned on the first page that “This is a work of nonfiction.” More than that, this one-man, two-hour story is a storm of first-hand investigative journlism, popular history, social activism, comedy and drama.

Mike Daisey, your performer/storyteller/journalist/activist, has garnered acclaim for other works in a similar style, and this one weaves together two yarns, one a bouncy ride through the history of Steve Jobs and Apple Computer, and the other, a harsh story of the hard, sometimes crippling labor by people in Shenzhen, China that goes into making Apple products and fully half of all electronics sold in the US.

The show is consciously activist, and encourages the audience to think differently, so to speak, about the electronics in their pockets and the human blood that goes into making them. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who saw the show during its run in Silicon Valley told the NY Times that he would “never be the same again,” and I must say that the glow of my various (numerous?) Apple products casts a different light after hearing Daisey’s stories of 12 year-olds on 16 hour shifts to meet demand for the hot new thing and one-armed workers discarded like broken parts after getting too close to a metal press.

We’re all vaguely aware of the foul workplace conditions at the bottom of our economy, and we read the occasional story of the long string of people throwing themselves off the roof of the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen. But it’s easy to forget, as Daisey reminds us, that everything– everything– is made by hand, by people, and when you hold your iPhone in your hand, it’s hard to escape a degree of guilt.

And yet Daisey’s performance is never hectoring or condescending; rather it is stirring and often very, very funny. Daisey is himself an inveterate techie and Apple fanboy– he speaks the language and revels in the geekery– and he’s equally horrified at his own complicity. I thoroughly enjoyed the performance, and will closely follow Daisey’s future work.

The show is a must-see if you’re a tech person in DC, but isn’t just for the geeks among us: the three relatively normal people I went with were all thoroughly entertained and inspired. Tickets are available here, and if you won’t take my word for it, the New York Times review is here.

Thoughts?

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