As state officials roll out the red carpet for Foxconn and the thousands of jobs the Taiwanese electronics manufacturer promises to create in Wisconsin, a Madison theater group is telling a markedly different story about working conditions at one of the company’s Chinese plants.
Left of Left Center’s adaptation of Mike Daisey’s penetrating but partially fabricated account of his travels to a Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China, acknowledges the flaws in Daisey’s original 2011 monologue, “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” the founder of Apple.
But Director Jake Penner and actor Jason Compton said the show, which opens Thursday at Madison’s Bartell Theatre, still speaks to the responsibilities that companies, co-workers and consumers have to one another.
Penner said he has wanted to put on the show for years but never found the right time to do so until now. Even after a National Public Radio program retracted a story it did about Daisey after learning part of his monologue had been made up, Penner said it still felt important enough to warrant a production.
Then, during auditions earlier this summer, Compton performed a piece of “Agony and Ecstasy,” which reminded Penner of his appreciation for the show.
The added context of the major manufacturer coming to Wisconsin finally prompted the production.
Some performances of the piece, which also recounts the history of Apple, focus on Jobs or Daisey. Left of Left Center is doing neither, instead portraying the main character as someone who has traveled to China and seen the things that Daisey said he saw.
“This show will be from a different perspective — a theatrical context — and a more personalized view of the institution,” Penner said.
Daisey’s story began to unravel after it was featured in a January 2012 episode of NPR’s “This American Life.” After the show aired, Rob Schmitz, a reporter for the NPR business program “Marketplace,” looked into some of Daisey’s assertions.
Schmitz located Daisey’s translator, a woman identified in the monologue only as Cathy from Shenzhen, who said some of the stories Daisey told were false, including a part about Foxconn factory guards carrying guns.
“This American Life” retracted the piece in March 2012.
“As best as we can tell, Mike’s monologue in reality is a mix of things that actually happened when he visited China and things that he just heard about or researched, which he then pretends that he witnessed firsthand,” host Ira Glass said in the retraction.
Daisey described the updated version of his script as the “ethical monologue,” saying it leaves out the parts that were invented when the production was first presented in 2011.
But he said current reports about the plant still show that improper working conditions are “not a debate.”
Results of a 2016 investigation published in May by China Labor Watch, which advocates for Chinese workers, found employees were still subject to excessive working hours and overtime and lagging income growth.
The group’s founder, Li Qiang, said the minimum salary at Foxconn had increased between 2009 and 2012, but that since then there had been no significant salary changes.
In a statement to the Wisconsin State Journal, Foxconn Technology Group said the company is dedicated to “a proactive approach towards continuously enhancing the positive working environment for our employees and safeguarding their rights.”
It also referred to Daisey’s allegations as “unfounded” after details about the falsified parts of his monologue came out in 2012.
Still ‘value’ in the end
Daisey defended his piece, saying it forces audiences to think about the complexities of the advancing technological world.
“There is nothing debatable about the ways our devices are made,” he said. “It’s unpleasant to contemplate it. We go out of our way to erase it from our minds.”
Penner said he felt the monologue was worth sharing. “Even though aspects of the argument were not 100 percent true, there is still value in the conclusion” about the responsibility people feel to the other people, he said.
From Compton’s perspective, Daisey’s revised script reiterates the doubt the monologist faced after the public found out that some of the original text wasn’t true.
“When, as the monologue reaches its climax and he indicts not just himself but his entire audience in a shared lie, he’s definitely not just talking just to the audience in that room,” he said. “He’s talking about the differences in degrees, severity and importance of certain lies of self-deception and mass-deception.”
Within the script itself Daisey even goes so far as to tell the audience “I am, after all, a noted fabulist. Perhaps none of this is true.”
By the end of the 90-minute monologue, the decision on what to believe is left up to the audience.