The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs Projects a Playwright's Outrage

I found myself wondering, while watching Ron May being Mike Daisey in Actors Theatre's The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, how it would be to watch May perform in this piece and not be preoccupied by admiration for his fine performance.

Probably I'd have been distracted anyway, wondering about how the controversy surrounding this one-man show has affected its script — as well as by the assholes whose cell phones kept going off (more on that later) during May's pleasing and well-shaded performance.

Indeed, even while I was thrilled to watch this fine actor wail and gnash his teeth and pontificate, my mind kept wandering back to the firestorm that erupted earlier this year when it was revealed that big hunks of Daisey's story about the dire working conditions in Apple's China factories had been embellished or invented. After an expurgated version of Daisey's show aired on Public Radio International's This American Life last spring, it was discovered that Daisey had fictionalized some of the interviews he claimed to have made with workers at Apple's slave-labor Foxconn factory in China. TAL retracted the piece, and Daisey later returned to the program to apologize and to defend his right to "shape a narrative" because he's a "theater artist."

So, too, is Ron May. Seated behind and pacing around a simple work table, surrounded by the darkness of Paul A. Black's elegant set design, May bellows and bleats and gesticulates, projecting Daisey's outrage at what he's found in China onto a stage that's soon filled with but never overwhelmed by polemic. We may not trust the play's author (who in this new version of his script has deleted tales of gun-toting Foxconn guards, underage workers on Apple assembly lines, and the old guy with the mangled hand who'd never actually seen the iPad he builds every day), but we trust May's (and director Matthew Weiner's) ability to capture our ire at the sad evolution of mankind.

Despite this captivating performance, the most shocking moment of the evening was unplanned and perfectly profound. While May as Daisey was describing the suicide of a Foxconn worker whose mind had bent after endless hours on an assembly line, a cell phone rang in the audience. The drama of the moment was both destroyed and enhanced by this terrible (and perfectly timed) faux pas, because it illustrated our inability to step away from the gadgets that are destroying the lives of people who make them for us. It was an inexcusable infraction, and one that describes who we've become almost as brilliantly as Ron May's performance.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela