A play for Wisconn Valley

The one-man show "The Agony And The Ecstasy Of Steve Jobs" runs through September 2 at the Bartell Theatre.

Jason Compton as Mike Daisey. Photo by Benjamin Barlow.

Jason Compton as Mike Daisey. Photo by Benjamin Barlow.

On Tuesday, the same day that the Racine Journal Times reported that plots of land in Mount Pleasant and the Town of Paris are being considered for Foxconn's proposed LCD screen factory in Wisconsin, Madison-based theater company Left of Left Center staged a preview of its production of The Agony And The Ecstasy Of Steve Jobs, running Aug. 31 through Sept. 2 at the Bartell Theatre. It's a 90-minute one-man show, directed by Jake Penner and starring Jason Compton, and loosely based on Mike Daisey's monologues of the same name.

The central character here is not Steve Jobs but Daisey himself. His monologues flip between stories of Jobs' dual nature and his impressions of the dystopian, Foucauldian Foxconn factories he visited in Shenzhen. The whole thing actually goes pretty quickly for a 90-minute, no intermission show with one actor. Compton, as Daisey, has more than enough energy for the show to fly by.

Now, if the show's title or the name Mike Daisey ring a bell, it's probably from 2012, when excerpts of Daisey's monologues appeared on a highly popular episode of This American Life.  It turned out that Daisey had embellished or outright made up several details of his trip to Foxconn. The discovery of the initial report's multiple inaccuracies resulted in a nerdy, NPR-insidery follow-up TAL episode dedicated to correcting the record.

The whole thing was a bit precious. What was particularly irritating about Daisey's fabrications was that they were completely unnecessary. The individual stories of abused Foxconn workers that we know to be true are dramatic enough on their own.

Penner and Compton's adaption uses Daisey's updated, post-fabrication monologue, which is in itself self-referential and self-deprecating. Mercifully, Penner tells me, they eliminated some of Daisey's navel-gazing about why he made up the details in the first place. Instead, Penner and Compton have made this adaption a useful tool for grappling with the trajectory of our consumerism as Wisconsin considers a $3 billion, taxpayer-funded deal to bring Foxconn here. The monologues do a lot of heavy lifting in detailing the massive strain our consumerism really imposes upon people around the world, and our cognitive erasure of the human labor necessary to make the Foxconn machine function.

"There are more handmade things now than there have ever been in the history of the world," Compton-as-Daisey says in one of the show's monologues. "Everything is handmade. I know. I have been there. I have seen the workers laying in parts thinner than human hair, one, after another, after another. Everything is handmade. If you have the eyes to see it."

If we do have the eyes to see the dystopian labor that puts iPhones and other ubiquitous products in our hands, that means most of us have put the complex moral question of Chinese labor out of our heads. And it is complex. In one of the show's most poignant moments, Daisey reflects on our crass capitalism's complicity in helping China's government maintain its repressive status quo: "[Foxconn factory workers] are exactly the people who could have the spirit to think about democracy, but fortunately for Beijing, they have an economic honey trap that soaks up all those people and keeps them busy."

The elephant in the room, the show points out, is that none of this is really news. The only thing that's changed is that it's now becoming impossible to shape a world in which we're willfully blind to the externalities of "technological innovation," or—twist the words to fit your worldview—planned obsolescence. Decades of global NIMBYism are coming back around to haunt us—and what a perfect time to consider our priorities, when the pewter skies of Shenzhen may be soon mirrored in southern Wisconsin. Post-fabrication, there's still much that Daisey's monologues can do for us, as we come to discover just what an incredible strain the Foxconn deal could have on our economic, political, and social infrastructure.

Even while the exact geographical location of our own special economic zone is still being sorted out, there are some known knowns and some known unknowns.  We know that Wisconsin won't even begin to break even on the deal until 2045, and that's with the rosiest of projections.

A known unknown is that we still don't know the exact amount of environmental damage the deal will do to our waterways and natural resources, because Foxconn has been exempted from having to submit an environmental impact statement before building its factory.

But still, count your blessings, because thanks to the work of unions over the decades, workers in the United States still have strong, culturally-demanded protections in a broad sense (much as Scott Walker would like to have it otherwise). In Wisconsin, unions are limping along, largely eradicated after a protracted, bloody fight. But it still could be worse. In Shenzhen, Daisey points out, being caught in a union is explicitly forbidden by the government and results in prison time. Those who complain or object to labor conditions find themselves on an official government blacklist of "troublemakers." Or to summarize, in an increasingly useful quote from the show, "in a fascist country led by thugs, you don't have to be subtle."