These days Mike Daisey is run off his feet.
“I don’t even have time to listen to my voicemail now. That’s a phenomenon I have not experienced before,” he said this weekend with an amazed laugh.
Perhaps he should not be so surprised. In the past two weeks, Daisey has gone from being a gifted, but obscure solo act in the US theater to the public face of a backlash against one of the iconic corporations of the 21st century.
Daisey’s latest work, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, has triggered off a spasm of soul--searching about the sometimes appalling labor conditions in China under which many of the US’ most cherished products are made. Specifically, the shiny, sleek iPhones, i-Pods and iPads produced by Apple.
The Agony and the Ecstasy was devised after exhaustive research talking to exploited and abused workers in China, for almost 18 months. Daisey played to small but appreciative crowds across the US, winning critical praise, but stirring little trouble, not even with the target of his ire: Apple itself.
However, everything changed last month when a discussion and partial performance of Daisey’s monologue appeared on the National Public Radio show This American Life. It rapidly became the most downloaded episode of the show’s history and an online petition calling for Apple to reform its practices began. Within 48 hours, it attracted 140,000 names. Then the New York Times ran an exhaustive investigation of Apple’s supplier network in China that revealed industrial accidents, brutal working conditions and child labor. Suddenly, Apple’s Chinese supplier network was huge news.
Daisey is a man in intense demand. He has appearances lined up on CNN and other TV shows.
On his blog, he has been updating the story regularly and fending off criticism from Apple’s defenders, including comedian Stephen Fry and Forbes columnist Tim Worstall. Daisey is delighted, but exhausted, having been up until 5am the previous night composing a response to a public attack from Worstall.
“I am tired, but I am encouraged to see traction. The only way you can fight for a thing like this is when you know the truth is on your side,” he said. “It’s the first time maybe in a generation that the American theater has affected change.”
The play’s premise is simple enough. It blends Daisey’s own backstory as a nerdy geek who loved — and continues to love — Apple products with the story of how Jobs ran the company with a mix of tyranny and genius before he died last year.
However, it then heads into dark territory as Daisey recounts how he became obsessed with photographs that emerged from inside the giant Foxconn factory in which many Apple products are made.
His fascination with how his beloved gadgets were built ends up with a subversive trip to southern China and interviews with ordinary workers who describe the physically and mentally crippling conditions in which many toil.
On the trip, Daisey was stunned that he, as a playwright, was the one digging up the truth.
“I wanted journalists to tell the story. I am a monologuist and it’s not the same thing, but I had to act as a journalist,” he said.
Daisey is scathing about many of the journalists who cover Apple. He recites the story of one tech journalist who agreed to appear on a panel with him only to be contacted by Apple and warned off doing so.