Mike Daisey says that though he’s never spoken officially to the company whose labor practices he lambastes in his hit one-man show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” he hears regularly from Apple’s army of employees.
Many of them, he explains, are trying to reconcile their own values with Daisey’s account of traveling to a vast industrial campus in Shenzhen, China, and discovering appalling conditions for the workers who assemble Apple’s iPads and other products.
“They come to see the show, and they e-mail me all the time,” he says of Apple’s white-collar employees over lunch in a Brooklyn restaurant not far from his apartment. “Mostly, they’re wrestling with what’s going on. They write things like, ‘You have to understand: We didn’t know what was going on.’ ”
Sometimes, what they tell him helps him reshape the monologue, which he has been performing for more than a year and which he’s constantly updating and refining. That process, in fact, got an early start in Washington, where Daisey first recited it in workshop form in 2010 and where he then mounted the piece in an acclaimed three-week run at Woolly Mammoth Theatre last spring.
Now, after an extended, equally well-received engagement at New York’s Public Theater — and a flurry of news reports about Apple in Shenzhen — Daisey will take the unusual step of bringing “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” back to Washington. It will play again, at Woolly, from July 17 to Aug. 5. This time, he’s hoping federal regulators might come and, as a result, consider ways of holding corporations more forcibly to account for the operations of foreign factories in which their products are manufactured.
Woolly has become a regular outpost for Daisey’s work; previous monologues such as “The Last Cargo Cult,” “How Theater Failed America” and “If You See Something Say Something” were performed there. But though he’s never remounted a work at Woolly for an additional full run, the company’s appetite for broadening the reach of its offerings made this opportunity for a return engagement an attractive one.
Woolly, in fact, seems to be grooming a summer production slot for its greatest hits. Last summer, the company staged its Pulitzer-winning “Clybourne Park” for a second time, to excellent box-office results.
The 35-year-old Daisey — whose dramatic style is a mix of lyrical storytelling and unvarnished advocacy — did not expect his relationship with this two-hour monologue to last this long. But in a more direct way than in any other piece he’s created over the years with his wife and director, Jean-Michele Gregory, this work has struck a topical chord with the public and the media.
“I think it’s important to bring ‘Agony and Ecstasy’ back to the nation’s capital when this thing is breaking open,” Daisey says. “One reason the story functions so well is that it is true. And the story is bigger than I am.”
The show has been adapted as a segment on NPR’s “This American Life” and has toured to 18 cities across the country, with plans for more appearances.
Unable to keep up with the additional requests to perform the show, Daisey has decided on an unorthodox path — allowing it to be performed by others. He’s making available online an “Agony and Ecstasy” transcript — it’s one particular version of the evolving monologue — and waiving royalties or licensing fees.
Though human rights organizations had long been documenting labor abuses by Chinese factories engaged in work for Western companies such as Apple, Daisey’s monologue appears to have been one of the spearheads for a closer examination of conditions there. In December, for example, the New York Times published articles detailing bleak working conditions and reports of safety problems at Chinese plants such as Foxconn City, a sprawling complex in Shenzhen in which Apple products are made.
This week, Apple announced that it had engaged a Washington-based group, the Fair Labor Association, to conduct an audit of how workers were being treated in plants where its equipment is manufactured — and that the organization will make public its conclusions.
A powerful portion of “Agony and Ecstasy” — recited by Daisey from behind a desk perched on the stage, from which he never gets up — concerns Daisey’s recounting of talking his way into Foxconn City and spending time interviewing workers. He describes their stories of inhumanly long shifts, numbing and hazardous work, and teeming living quarters. The attention now being drawn to the Shenzhen he encountered feels like a vindication to him.
“The fundamentals of the story are in the human rights reports from six to eight years ago,” Daisey says, adding that he finds it extraordinary that it was a piece of theater that seemed, finally, to bring those reports fully to life.
“I just want companies to follow the labor laws so that people don’t die,” he says.
July 17 to Aug. 5. Tickets range from $30 to $67.50, but prices may rise as performances fill up. Woolly Mammoth, 641 D St. NW. Call 202-393-3939 or visit woollymammoth.net.