Mike Daisey: American Utopias

Duke Performances at PSI Theatre, Durham Arts Council

Jan. 30–Feb. 3

Wednesday night’s performance is a pay-what-you-can, $10 minimum. In addition to Daisey’s five shows at Durham Arts Council, he appears at 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 4, at Manbites Dog Theater, where he and Duke law professor Jedediah Purdy will converse with Duncan Murrell, writer-in-residence at the Center for Documentary Studies. The event is free.

Mike Daisey is talking on an iPhone. And not an old one, either, but a new iPhone 5, which was released in September.

If this fact doesn’t startle, take your memory back to April 2012, even if it feels like a decade in Twitter time. Daisey was the center of a tempest that arose after questions were raised about his performance on a January 2012 episode of This American Life. Adapted from his acclaimed stage monologue The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, Daisey’s radio piece detailed the appalling conditions at Foxconn, Apple’s chief manufacturing contractor that is headquartered in Taiwan but operates facilities in China. The episode was a smash, but news soon emerged that a number of dramatic details were invented or massaged.

Perhaps Warhol’s maxim needs an update: Everyone will be a scandal for 15 minutes. In an episode that would become the most-downloaded in This American Life‘s 18-year history, Daisey apologized on the air to an indignant Ira Glass. After enduring public scorn and sneering tweets from the likes of New York Times media maven David Carr, Daisey revised his show. His most recently updated version of the Steve Jobs show, available for download on his website, includes a contrite introduction in which he acknowledges the need for his monologue to be as ethical as Apple’s outsourcing practices should be.

“The new version has been fact-checked within an inch of its fucking life,” he tells me, speaking via iPhone in Brooklyn.

Daisey continued to maintain an active presence on Twitter (@mdaisey), from which he often retweets news reports from computer hardware suppliers in Asia, and he carried on with his writing and performing schedule. Earlier this month at Joe’s Pub at New York’s Public Theater, his newest work, Fucking Fucking Fucking Ayn Rand, sold out its premiere in minutes. And an even newer one, Faster Better Social Click Like Touch Tweet Yes Yes!!1! (or, Our Slavery is Rich and Full), will premiere next month in New York.

And this week in downtown Durham, as part of a residency at Duke Performances, he’ll be performing a slightly older new show, American Utopias, which tackles three different “utopias”Burning Man, Disney World and Zuccotti Park, the locus of Occupy Wall Street.

But first, about that phone: iPhones are awesome things, even for Mike Daisey. He blogged fondly about his trusty old iPhone 3, and when it died recently, he turned to the iPhone 5. But what about buying the highly acclaimed Samsung Galaxy?

Samsung’s record is even worse, Daisey says. “Abysmal.”

Not only is it impossible to make a responsible purchase of a smartphone or tablet, Daisey says that that’s as it should be.

“It’s good that it’s not possible,” he says. If it were, he argues, it “would obviate the larger reality. People would be able to say, ‘My obligations are discharged. I’ve done enough.’”

But the reality, whether embellished with melodramatic details or not, continues apace. As Daisey points out, worker suicides at Foxconn have continued, and in September, there was a riot involving at least 2,000 workers (Foxconn said later that it “wasn’t work-related”). Also in September, reports emerged that Foxconn had used “forced student labor” to assemble iPhones in Zhengzhou. And just last week, Apple acknowledged uncovering many instances of child labor in its supply chain.

Still, as Duke Performances director Aaron Greenwald acknowledges, Daisey took risks with his work and got burned. “He was dealing with two pillars of American life, Mac and [public radio],” Greenwald says. “He was flying pretty close to the sun.”

Like The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, American Utopias is a work that’s an outgrowth of Daisey’s long interest in mythmaking and totemic objects, including The Last Cargo Cult, which he performed at UNC in 2009. In American Utopias, he opens with a trip he took with his director to Burning Man. It’s a fish-out-of-water tale, hilariously observed, that, come to think of it, would be right at home on This American Life.

But while the communal spirit of Burning Man gets a fond if not uncritical treatment, things take a more sinister turn when he joins his extended family for a trip to Disney World. His account of what he calls the “happiest place on Earth” is by turns rigorously analytical, satirical and child-phobic. In a delivery that’s more Louis C.K. than Spalding Gray: “The girls … all whom are princessesALL OF THEM!every single one, they just look dazed and confused with their little wings or their wands or their tiaras.”

Daisey continues to be dogged by skepticsindeed, one doesn’t have to search his Twitter timeline too deeply to find continuing scraps with his critics, including one that occurred just before our interview.

“I should ignore things,” Daisey admits. “I shouldn’t engage.” But at this point, he isn’t inclined to keep wearing the hairshirt. “I don’t have people in the actual world say to me, ‘You lied to people, so why should we ever listen to you?’

“I work in the theater, and if you don’t want to listen to me, we have a great system where you can choose to not buy a ticket.”

This article appeared in print with the headline “American storyteller.”