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Who Would Be King: The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at the Public Theater

New York Observer

By Jesse Oxfeld

At least twice during his new show, the virtuoso monologist Mike Daisey refers to himself as an actor. Twice more, he calls himself a storyteller. He is of course both things, but the descriptors miss the true impact of what he has accomplished in his powerful piece, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which opened Monday night at the Public Theater.

As much as he is a performer, Mr. Daisey is also an investigative journalist, even, in the best sense, a muckraker. In his forthright examination of Mr. Jobs, of the various i-devices Jobs created, and of the Chinese sweatshops where those devices are manufactured, Mr. Daisey opens an Upton Sinclair-like window into the horrors and human cost of producing the shiny electronic gizmos resting silently, and increasingly uncomfortably, in our pockets.

For this show, Mr. Daisey is seated, per usual, at a lone chair behind a solitary table set at the middle of an open, mostly unadorned stage. (He is directed here, also per usual, by Jean-Michele Gregory, his wife.) In a nod to the topic, the table is not the standard dark wood; instead it’s a sleekly simple glass-topped, metal-legged Parsons design; planted behind it, Mr. Daisey—enormous, black-clad, sweaty, with arms dancing, fingers twitching, fleshly face contorting expressively—is totally compelling, especially as he digs deeper into his story.

A lifelong Apple devotee, Mr. Daisey was inspired by an item on a website covering the company and its products—someone’s iPhone had arrived with photos already stored on it, test shots taken at a Chinese factory—to visit the place where they’re made. It’s a factory in Shenzhen, a Deng Xiaoping-designated “special economic zone,” in which Western companies can build enormous factories with virtually no regulation of environmental effects or worker treatment. Mr. Daisey’s account of his visits to Shenzhen—where the polluted air hits you “like a booted foot on your chest,” he says, and where “the cost of labor is basically nothing”—is the meat of the piece, the revelation in his reporting.

Robotics don’t manufacture these devices; people do—workers as young as 12, working up to 16 hours each day, sleeping in factory-provided dormitories, a dozen or so per small room. The Foxconn plant in Shenzhen, which makes an astonishing 52 percent of all electronic devices in the world, Daisey reports, including Apple’s, employs some 430,000 people. Each of them performs his or her assigned, small task over and over. Mr. Daisey waited outside the factory to meet them, and he tells of one woman who spends all day, every day, wiping iPhone screens. Another man’s hand was crushed in a metal press making iPads; he received no medical attention. During Mr. Daisey’s visit, another worker died on the line after a working a 30-hour shift. It’s Modern Times, sans Chaplin; the Ford assembly line, without the $5 per day—or the UAW.

What elevates the impressive feat of journalism into such a gripping performance is the same thing that turns a simple newspaper report into a great magazine piece: Mr. Daisey expertly constructs his story. He opens with an attention-grabbing scene: him in Hong Kong’s Chungking Mansions, a sort of black-market shopping mall, bonding with a gold-toothed phone-hacking over an ersatz iPhone. He then shifts to a warm account of his own fraught obsession with Apple. He weaves in the history of the company and of Jobs, tracking the CEO’s transition from “techno-liberatarian hippie” to “megalomaniacal asshole and kind of a tyrant.” And he layers in his own gonzo reporting among the workers of Shenzhen. He acknowledges Jobs’ recent death, but uses that news to underline his points, not as a reason to pull punches.

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is a perfectly assembled, vividly performed act of advocacy journalism. It ends on a provocative point: Mr. Jobs could have changed manufacturing, could have used Apple’s power and his own charisma to demand better working conditions for the people making his products, but he chose not to. Now that we in the audience know the truth—that our phones and computers are made by overworked child laborers, virtual serfs—what will we choose?

You could take it as an indictment of our apathetic, consumerist society that the most urgent advocacy play to open in the last week was the one about Steve Jobs, not the one about Martin Luther King. You could blame that on America’s endemic historical amnesia, or on the vogueish but false idea that we’re in a post-race, post-rights era.

Or it could be because of the mediocre playwriting, limp direction, and mismatched performances in The Mountaintop, the starry, high-profile imagining of King’s final night that opened Thursday at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.

The Mountaintop dramatizes an invented interaction between King and a young chambermaid in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel, on the balcony outside of which, as we well know, he’ll be assassinated the next evening. A hit in London with different actors and a different director, it was written by a buzzed-about young playwright, Katori Hall; it features the movie stars Samuel L. Jackson as King and Angela Bassett as the maid, Camae; it won the Olivier award for best new play. It is intriguingly determined to show us King as a flesh-and-bones man—he relieves himself, not visibly but quite audibly, soon after entering the motel room—while also placing him in a near-deified pantheon.

It doesn’t succeed, primarily because it doesn’t actually have anything new to say about the civil-rights hero. The first few moments of the play seem promising—it’s great fun watching King putter about the room, writing and rehearsing bits of oratory. But after Camae enters, their flirtatious conversation is a bore: We’re told lots of things we already know about the reverend, including the fact that he had an eye for women who were not his wife.

Mr. Jackson gives a relaxed, subtly electric performance as King, lending to the role his natural presence and magnetism. But director Kenny Leon, who drew a gorgeously matched set of performances from Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in his searing revival of August Wilson’s Fences two seasons ago, is unable to rein in the grandstanding Ms. Bassett, who seems poised to chew up Mr. Jackson along with the meticulously replicated scenery. Her performance becomes less jarring once The Mountaintop makes a surprise turn for the surreal and metaphysical near the two-thirds mark, but even then, it, and the play, remain unconvincing.

Of course, the material doesn’t help Ms. Bassett control herself. Her character ends the play bellowing a litany of civil-rights names and milestones reached after King’s death. It’s a Black History Month version of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” and there’s no subtle way to play that.