Mike Daisey Reflects on American Utopias

Michigan Avenue Magazine

Mike Daisey, the monologist who never tires of sticking it to the status quo, returns to Chicago with a brand-new provocation.

By Thomas Connors

For a man who doesn’t mince words, Mike Daisey can be quite softly eloquent. Looking back over the path his career has taken, from actor to acclaimed monologist, he relates, “I love the theater very much, but I wanted to find a form that would allow me to explore my obsessions, to create pieces so that they would be composed in the air as they were spoken.” The angry man’s Spalding Gray, Daisey has been railing against the contradictions of the American psyche and the insidiousness of corporate culture for longer than a decade. This month, he arrives at the Museum of Contemporary Art with his latest solo work, American Utopias.

While his performances are laced with acid humor, there was nothing funny about the excoriation Daisey received this past May when doubts were cast on the veracity of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, his examination of working conditions at China’s Foxconn Technology Group, the electronics manufacturer whose assembly lines churn out beloved Apple products. Pundits had a field day; This American Life retracted a segment that included material from the show; and an engagement at the Chicago Theatre was canceled. The incident became the cynosure for a discussion of fact and fiction, reportage and poetic license. “Going through that experience was extremely painful and disruptive,” admits Daisey, “but it challenged me to examine myself and the way in which I work, and to ask questions in the deepest way, about: Why tell stories? Why am I telling stories? What does it mean to tell the truth? What does it mean to tell a story in the theater and to tell a story in the world outside the theater?”

With American Utopias, Daisey muses on the national propensity for locating within our weary lives some place to serve as a repository for the best idea of ourselves. His roster of seemingly disparate places includes Walt Disney World, the Burning Man festival, and Zuccotti Park, the small area of Lower Manhattan most of us had never heard of until the Occupy movement set up camp there last fall. “It’s fascinating,” says Daisey, “to look at the difference between a dream that is corporately approved, like Disney World, one that is incredibly anarchic but safely in a wasteland, like Burning Man, and an activist dream like the Occupy movement, happening in the heart of an American city.”

As one wired to vehemently question all hierarchical structures, Daisey is no utopian himself. “The closest I had to a utopian vision was when I worked at Amazon,” he reflects. “I believed we were changing the world, when what we were really doing was creating an online version of Kmart. But I think utopianism is an important impulse because without that animating fire, we come to believe that transformation is impossible.”