There have been fingers inside your iPhone; they were wiped away with alcohol before you got it. The iPhone, in other words, was made not by machines but by fingers (fingers are cheaper). The fingers that do the work are located in a humongous factory complex in Shenzhen, China, at a company called Foxconn, which employs 800,000 people, where earlier this year workers were flinging themselves off the buildings to their deaths. The reason for the suicides was the iPhone 4. Conditions that are already very bad become apparently unbearable when the American market is about to receive a new, improved product, so people die. This is not something that anyone is particularly exercised about. But something changes when you find out that your gleaming iPhone once had fingers inside it; in computer terms, this introduces a virus into your system of thinking: Your handheld device never was hands-free. Mike Daisey went to Shenzhen for three weeks, stood outside Foxconn, and shook these hands. And he has just begun planting the virus he picked up there. Last weekend, a tiny but potent dose of it hit Seattle.
The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs centers on the trip to China, Apple CEO Steve Jobs's storied history, and Daisey's own geeky relationship to computers. He calls out geeky hypocrites (along with the rest of the happily blind consumers) who get worked up about tiny problems with their devices but are missing the huge picture of worker abuse overseas—and he says he was one of those people, until his trip changed him.
The Agony is the first overtly activist piece of theater by Daisey, and Daisey is one of the greatest theater artists ever to come out of Seattle. Not that he's ever gotten that much love from the big Seattle theaters; he now lives in New York. Last summer, I was lucky to be one of the few people to see a workshop of the blindingly brilliant show The Last Cargo Cult, which told of his journey to the last place on earth where they don't have money (one side of the Pacific island Tanna) in the wake of the rest of the world's economic collapse. The performance was at the little black box at Hugo House, which is hardly a theater at all, and where people were climbing over each other to get seats (I, shamefully, hustled to overtake a blind man for the very last seat). That show played at New York's storied Public Theater in December to raves; it never appeared in its final form in Seattle.
But this past weekend's two workshop performances (because they were workshops, this is not a review) of the brand-new The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at Seattle Repertory Theatre represent a new relationship. The Agony is being workshopped in other places— this week India—until the spring, when it comes back to the Rep for a proper opening and run. I predict majorness. It promises, like every Daisey performance, to be electric, poetic, and highly human. But Daisey has set himself a special task this time; he wants his audiences to go out and change the world—specifically, labor conditions in China. Given what I saw Saturday, I think he has (and, thanks to his feats of theater and journalism, we all have) a real fighting chance.