More ecstasy than agony in Daisey’s Steve Jobs

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Mike Daisey delivers his latest monologue, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, on a fancy set that looks a little like a laptop. Photo by Below: To research Apple’s manufacturing process, Daisey traveled to China. Photo by Ursa Waz.

It’s interesting that Mike Daisey chooses not to talk about current events in The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, the second of two monologues running in repertory on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage.

The very title of the show implies that Jobs will factor largely in the two-hour, intermission-free show. But Daisey never mentions that on Jan. 17, Apple announced that Jobs has taken medical leave from the company. Following other health issues – pancreatic cancer in 2004, a liver transplant in 2009 – the departure isn’t a huge surprise, but it’s a very big deal in the world of Apple and, consequently, in the world of technology.

Daisey wrote about Jobs’ leave on his blog: “It is almost impossible to imagine Apple without him, and there’s a palpable sense of loss and change as the tech industry struggles to know what this will mean for its future.”

In his monologue, Daisey disperses a lot of information about Jobs – about how he’s a visionary and an asshole, how he’s obsessed with the beauty of design and ruthless in business. But at a certain point, Daisey leaves Jobs behind to focus on what really concerns him: the abuse of Chinese workers in the manufacture of the world’s technology.

In the first part of Berkeley Rep’s Daisey double feature, The Last Cargo Cult, Daisey demonstrates how committed he is to telling fascinating stories by traveling to the South Pacific. For Steve Jobs, Daisey is an outright journalist on a quest for his story. Being a lifelong fan of Apple products (he dismantles his laptop and puts it back together for post-show solace), it suddenly dawned on him that he had no idea how these products were made. Somehow, he had it in his head that robot assembly lines put the things together, bit by tiny byte.

Ever inquisitive, he began to ask the question, and it turns out, products like Apple’s iPods, iPhones and iPads are made in Shenzhen, China. Specifically, they’re handmade at a company called Foxconn, which employs, according to Daisey, 430,000 workers and has 25 cafeterias, each of which holds 10,000 people. The company has also been in the news lately because of pesky worker suicides.

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With the help of a Chinese translator named Kathy, Jobs travels to Shenzhen because, as he says, “Sometimes you have to obey your imperative…You have to go to the door and ask the fucking questions.” So, under the gaze of guards holding machine guns, attempts to interview workers as they come of shift.

What he learns, of course, is not good. Some of the workers her interviews are 12 and 13 years old. Workdays are 12 hours and more. Repetition of movement is constant to the point of body warping. In short, the workers, as Daisey relates it, are aware that the devices they’re working on are worth more than their lives.

Of course Apple isn’t the only manufacturer taking advantage of Chinese workers – Nokia, Dell, Amazon, Samsung and many others are there as well (Daisey reports that half of the world’s electronic devices are made by Foxconn). But as Daisey points out, Apple is the industry leader – they have the best ideas (if not the best market share), and everyone else is trying to keep up with them.

That’s why Apple’s hypocrisy is so alarming. Here’s this humane, beauty-influenced company that wants to make the world a better place resorting to the worst kind of labor abuse to meet market demands.

Daisey makes his case in his customarily ferocious way, and he’s assisted by a slick set and lighting design by Seth Reiser that puts Daisey in what looks like a giant Vegas version of a laptop (the LED lights in the screen behind him actually become part of his story). Even his traditional storyteller’s table has been upgraded to sleek metal and glass with lights underneath.

Under the direction of Jean-Michele Gregory, the delivery here has more elements of stand-up – he really punches the funny lines and gives Jon Stewart-ish spins to others. He’s funny and apoplectic in equal measure.

Daisey really had me until he abandons the soapbox for the pulpit. In the homestretch he really bashes it over our heads. It’s clear he cares passionately about the issue of Chinese workers being treated with decency – how could he not? But he’s already made such a strong case that his final harangue seems like overkill.

Perhaps more effective than that last vehement push is the distribution of flyers on the way out of the theater. The sheet, a note from Daisey, contains instructions for contacting Apple customer relations and learning more about labor conditions in China:

Apple Customer Relations: 800-275-2273 (or for Apple investors: 408-974-3123)
China Labor Watch
Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior


Mike Daisey’s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs continues in rotating repertory with The Last Cargo Cult through Feb. 27 on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $34-$73 with half-price discounts for anyone under 30. Call 510 647-1918 or visit for information.

Taken in by the Cult of Mike Daisey

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Mike Daisey stars in The Last Cargo Cult at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Photo courtesy of Below: One of Daisey’s snapshots from his visit to Tanna.

I’ve seen Mike Daisey before on the Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage. The country’s foremost monologist has entertained and captivated me on several occasions.

But at Wednesday’s opening of The Last Cargo Cult, I felt like I really got to see Mike Daisey. His story has to do, among many other things, with a live volcano, and that’s what he’s like on stage. He erupts in ways that are frightening and so dazzling you just can’t turn away.

Daisey’s explosive performance is all the more extraordinary because until the curtain call, he doesn’t move from behind the large wood table, upon which rest a glass of water and a few sheets of yellow note paper.

With a face that goes from comic to emphatic and back again, Daisey gives an amazingly full-bodied performance from the waist up. His voice can boom and it can coax. For emphasis, he can ramp up a sort of Tourette-style burst of anger or outrage, often laced with an f-bomb. Get him on the subject of derivatives and step back.

Those are just a few of the tools in his considerable storyteller’s kit. Another is passion – extraordinary passion – for his subject.

The Last Cargo Cult is less autobiography and more travelogue mixed with journalism mixed with socioeconomic cage rattler. The star of the show isn’t even Daisey himself. It’s money. Cold, hard cash, man.

When you walk into the Thrust, an usher hands you a piece of rag paper with printing on it. On closer inspection, this paper turns out to be legal tender. Some people get ones, some get fives, tens or twenties. A few folks even got to inspect the Mona Lisa-like smile of Ben Franklin on $100 bill.

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I won’t tell you what happens with the money, but it’s powerful. Daisey wants to give us some perspective on our relationship to money and what it actually means in the world. He might as well walk up to each audience member individually and make us announce how much we made last year.

To say our relationship with money is complicated is, of course, a massive understatement. But Daisey, in his wonderfully engaging way, finds a way to bring a fresh viewpoint. When he says money is our true religion, that it holds a sacred place in our lives, he’s absolutely right. When he says that money only ever corrodes relationships, he’s absolutely right.

The crystallization of want looms large in this show – almost as large as the towering pyramid of merchandise boxes that fills the stage (set and lighting design by Seth Reiser. We want all kinds of things, and we spread our want around the world by way of our, as Daisey puts it, “awesome shit.”

That’s how he ends up on a small rock in the South Pacific, an island in the Vanuatu archipelago called Tanna, once famous for its cannibalism and now known for its annual John Frum Day, a spiritual celebration of all things American. Thanks to a brief occupation by American soldiers during World War II, these island people worship American capitalism. They dig our awesome shit.

And it’s creepy to see ourselves and our values and our blind submission to all things financial refracted through their culture.

At two hours with no intermission, The Last Cargo Cult drags a bit here and there. It’s too long, but there wasn’t a moment I didn’t want Daisey to stop talking (or shouting or putting new spins on the word “awkward”). I loved his use of the expressions “fuck ton” and “dirtbike shit” so much that I’m going to incorporate them into my everyday language.

I have to think that Daisey can only be this good, working at this high a level, because of the ever-reliable direction of his collaborator (and wife), Jean-Michele Gregory.

Daisey likes to climb up on his soapbox, but I don’t have a problem with that when the storytelling is this powerful. When Mike Daisey talks, I buy it. I completely buy it.


Mike Daisey’s The Last Cargo Cult continues in rotating repertory with The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs through Feb. 27 on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $34-$73 with half-price discounts for anyone under 30. Call 510-647-1918 or visit for information.

Enjoy this peek into the world of Mike Daisey’s The Last Cargo Cult:

And be sure to visit Mike’s website:

Mike Daisey meets genius

Looking back, Mike Daisey calls “the incident” “chilling and dorky.”

The monologist, who has brought his 21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ and The Ugly American to Berkeley Repertory Theatre, was in Cambridge, Mass. with a new monologue called Invincible Summer.

He got to the part about what it must be like to have sex with Paris Hilton (the man’s a satirist, OK?), and suddenly most of his audience got up and walked out of the theater.

While Daisey absorbed the exodus of his audience, a man approached Daisey’s table onstage — Daisey’s monologues are always delivered with him sitting behind a table that holds his hand-written notes and a glass of water — and dumped a bottle of water all over his notes.

You can see the incident below or on Daisey’s Web site because it was videotaped (, go to the April 20 entry).

The look on Daisey’s face, especially after the water ruins his notes, is painful to see, but he gathers himself enough to get up and shout after the fleeing crowd: “Do any of you people who are leaving want to stay and talk about this or do you want to run out like cowards?”

It turns out the group was from Norco High School in Southern California (Norco is kind of between Chino and Riverside), and the adults felt Daisey’s language was a “safety” issue for the students.

In the aftermath, Daisey contacted the man who ruined his notes and writes about the encounter in great detail on his Web site.

“Looking at it now, the realization for me is that we have a tendency to cocoon ourselves and imagine things like this don’t happen where we are,” Daisey says. “The idea that a word would cause someone to destroy something is somewhat alien to me. Or was.”

Daisey is on his way back to Berkeley Rep with a new monologue — actually four new monologues — called Great Men of Genius. Each show is devoted to a historical figure Daisey considers great: Nikola Tesla (a scientist who worked with electricity), P.T. Barnum (the circus showman), Bertolt Brecht (the German playwright and poet) and L. Ron Hubbard (the sci-fi writer who created the Church of Scientology).

But at the moment, Daisey is in residence at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, where he’s sequestered in a woodland cabin creating great works and communing with other great artists.

“The incident in Cambridge was so singular and shocking you worry it will overwhelm the other work you do,” Daisey says. “But as P.T. Barnum said, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. He also said it doesn’t matter what you write about me as long as you spell my name correctly.”
Daisey, 34, doesn’t quite agree with that, but the Barnum mention provides a nice segue into talking about Great Men of Genius, which has been burbling in Daisey’s brain a long time.

“I’ve known I wanted to talk about these guys for a really long time,” he says. “The synaptic jump was when I realized I should do all four of them together.”

Each show is about 90 minutes, and Berkeley Rep convinced Daisey that on Sundays during his run, he should do all four in a marathon — something Daisey has never attempted to do.

“Most shows have an eight-show week, so this means I’ll do four shows between Wednesday and Saturday and then have half of my week all in one day on Sunday,” Daisey says. “I’ll really have to keep my energy and stamina up.”

In putting the four shows together, Daisey realized he was creating one big show about the nature of genius. What kind of environment creates genius?

“Is genius a product of social order where we declare genius, or is it a force reaching beyond the human to do things we didn’t think possible?” Daisey asks.

Perhaps the most surprising “genius” on Daisey’s roster is Hubbard.

“I discovered Hubbard by reading Battlefield Earth, the worst enormous book I’ve ever read,” Daisey says. “But Hubbard captures one of the facets of this process of geniushood, this process of demagoguery, where people worship at the shrine of idolatry. He was incredibly brilliant at coming up with the idea. that a religion could be a business. All cults in the modern world really descend from patterns he created in the ’50s for Scientology. He wrote and spoke convincingly about forging a system of belief that would then support the person at its center.”

In Daisey’s show, Hubbard sits alongside Barnum, whom many may not consider a genius.
“But he was a brilliant marketer,” Daisey says. “He was brilliant at marketing himself and crafting a story in a sales pitch. You sell the sizzle, not the steak, he said. Sell the steak, you’ve got no more steak, but you can sell the sizzle over and over again.”

As for Brecht and Tesla, Daisey says they have more congruities than differences.

“I think each of these men has connections with the other,” Daisey says. “It would make an interesting diagram. Where they all overlap, that’s the heart of what I’m getting at: the pathways to illuminate the psyche.”

Audience members can see one of the four or the entire quartet. When Daisey did the shows in Seattle and New York, he says a large portion of the audience ended up seeing all four.

“The shows are built independently so each functions on its own artistic merits,” he says. “I don’t end on a cliffhanger. They won’t be unsatisfying. But what I’ve experienced in the past is that people see one, realize they’d like to see more and end up seeing as many as they can.”

Great Men of Genius continues through July 1 on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Brecht is at 8 p.m. Wednesdays; Barnum at 8 p.m. Thursdays; Tesla at 8 p.m. Fridays; Hubbard at 8 p.m. Saturdays; four-show marathons at 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Call (510) 647-2949 or visit for information.

The return of Daisey

In his most recent e-mail newsletter, Mike Daisey, who was recently profiled in the New York Times, dropped a little nugget of information:

Writes Daisey: “If you’re reading this in the Bay Area, be advised that I’ll be performing GREAT MEN OF GENIUS, my 4-part monologue about megalomania and insanity in the lives of Bertolt Brecht, P.T. Barnum, Nikola Tesla, and L. Ron Hubbard at Berkeley Rep this June. Watch for details soon!”

Daisey, you may remember, has been at Berkeley Rep with previous shows, “21 Dog Years: Doing Time @” and “The Ugly American.”

Visit his Web site here.