Daisey is an amazing storyteller, and his stage presence during his monologues is undeniably compelling: clearly going big is something he knows a lot about. He's simultaneously an everyman and a fierce individualist. He knows how to work a room, and he can weave together multiple narrative threads into incisive, powerful, compact, vividly-present live theater.
In March, Daisey showed he could go big in another way: His recent monologue The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs brought more attention to the artist, probably more than he ever imagined or wanted. The monologue details a visit Daisey took to China to observe the manufacturing practices that are involved in creating the sleek gizmos he loves: iPads, iPods, MacBooks. The show's descriptions of the inhumane conditions in Chinese factories caught the attention of the NPR show This American Life, which broadcast his performance in January 2012. The episode, which consisted almost entirely of excerpts from Daisey's monologue, went viral and quickly became one of the most popular episodes of the show ever.
But a China-based correspondent for Marketplace, which is carried on NPR affiliates, later found some of the Dickensian details recounted in Daisey's show were not direct reporting but a pastiche he had created to make a more compelling story. A controversy started raging: Where is journalism heading if particular details in a story are concocted to describe some broader truth? Media critic and NYU professor Jay Rosen dubbed Daisey a "master manipulator" while Slate chimed in that Daisey was an "unethical" and "dehumanizing storyteller." This American Life retracted the story, and Daisey came on the show to give a painful mea culpa apology.
But the show must go on, as they say. And Daisey is continuing with scheduled performances of an amended version of Agony and Ecstasy, including shows at Charleston's annual Spoleto festival. The piece opened at Charleston's Emmett Robinson Theatre last night, Thursday, May 31, and continues there through June 5.
What's most surprising in the changed show is that Daisey barely addresses the scandal at all, at least not directly. Very little of the show has changed, though the contested six minutes have been excised. The segment in question included Daisey's descriptions of meeting poisoned factory workers, underage workers at a plant and guards carrying guns.
The remaining two hours of the show consist of three narrative threads which are woven together throughout the performance as Daisey shifts from one to the other and back again. One thread is Daisey's lifelong obsession with technology, Apple products in particular. Another is a thumbnail biography of Steve Jobs. And the third is a travel narrative of Daisey's trip to China during which he spoke to factory workers and businessmen to learn about the people who manufacture Apple products.
The show is intense: its two-hour length never feels too long. If anything, the three threads feel very compact. We get unforgettable descriptions of a shady Hong Kong shopping district, a sharply-limned portrait of Daisey's translator, a description of Daisey's hopeful nights in college exploring an early version of the internet, anecdotes about Steve Jobs' early life. It's a lot to pack in, and somehow we never spend quite long enough in the stories to feel we've genuinely arrived in any of them.
The stories about Steve Jobs are small but telling biographical anecdotes. We learn about the contours of his genius, his business sense, his strangeness, but Jobs never quite emerges as a full human being in Daisey's show: he remains a fascinating cypher.
"Now you know," Daisey says several times as the performance is drawing to a close. Along with the statement that the performance has "rewritten our code" and "shifted the metaphor," it seems a bit presumptuous, a statement from the performer himself about the effect of the performance. And it goes a bit far: the actual information left in the show from Daisey's China trip is shocking but sparse. First-person details matter when asking an audience to think about the people whose hands make our computer gadgets.
Six minutes may not sound like much to take out of a two-hour show, but it's actually possible to make up a lot of stuff in six minutes. Daisey wouldn't have bothered putting it in if it weren't somehow crucial to the effectiveness of the show, and the performance seems somehow diminished now. For a famously outspoken artist who engages with intensely personal topics that touch on global themes, to not touch substantively on what happened to him seems odd: the revision should have been more encompassing.
In a question-and-answer period after the show, it seemed clear that Daisey was still very much processing what had happened to him. His presence was part mea culpa, part self-defense, part sheer exhaustion with the whole thing. He compared the experience of becoming the media's momentary whipping boy to performing in Greek tragedy: there was an element of the fatal flaw, of pre-ordered pageantry, of expected performance in the ordeal.
There's a compelling story here, but there are so many disparate pieces - Chinese factory workers experiencing inhumane conditions in a tightly controlled society, American media ignoring their plight but jumping on a scandal, Steve Jobs cheating early friends of their fair share, intentional blindness on the part of American consumers, a performer placing himself in the middle of it all - how they might fit together is still up in the air. Daisey is the artist who could take it on, and it's a disappointment to see that, though the events accelerated in March, his story remains the same, minus some controversial details.
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