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The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at 16th Street Theater | Theater review

The compelling parallel stories of Apple and Foxconn are greater than the controversy over Mike Daisey’s fudged details.

Photograph: David Skorpen
Lance Baker in The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at 16th Street Theater

Monologuist [node:15824206 link=Mike Daisey;] found himself in hot water after performing a version of this piece, which chronicles the rise of Apple alongside an investigation of the working conditions at a Foxconn plant in Shenzhen, China, on WBEZ’s This American Life about a year ago. TAL retracted the episode, and Chicago Public Radio canceled a Daisey performance it was sponsoring at the Chicago Theatre, after it came to light that Daisey had fudged some details of what he had personally witnessed in Shenzhen.

Daisey defended his fabrications as those of a theatrical storyteller. Whether that absolves him for taking those storytelling shortcuts off the stage and onto This American Life and cable TV news shows remains a topic for debate. But seeing The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs performed a year later, and by Chicago actor Lance Baker rather than Daisey himself, provides enough remove to prove that while the piece might not be strict journalism, its larger truths remain valid.

Baker stages and reads a revised version of Daisey’s script that obliquely acknowledges the controversy. The speaker tells us late in the piece that we don’t have to believe him, a “noted fabulist,” before citing The New York Times’s extensive reporting on the Foxconn facilities that manufacture as much as 50 percent of the world’s electronics by subjecting workers to long hours of ceaseless work. Yet the disclosure feels unnecessary by this point in the play; Baker’s uncanny but not imitative channeling of Daisey only highlights the writer’s unnerving skill at weaving parallel narratives into a compelling whole. The playwright isn’t condemning Apple exclusively but the entire electronics industry and our consumer role in refusing to question the provenance of our goods. If any audience members leave without thinking differently about the devices in our pockets, they weren’t listening honestly.

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