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Quality helps theater drive social change

For at least a decade, journalists have been reporting on the often-deplorable working and living conditions of Chinese factory workers who produce most of the electronic devices Americans use on a daily basis.

The dogged work of those journalists, to which the American public had easy access via publications large and small, has done much to spread the word about human-rights abuses in the name of our consumer culture. It hasn't done a great deal to stop it.

That is, until the arrival of Mike Daisey, a former Apple fan-boy who turned his dismay at the conditions that produce iPhones and iPods into a heartrending monologue known as "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs."

The show, which opened last fall and is now running at The Public Theatre in New York City, is essentially a piece of theatrical journalism that lays bare the disturbing treatment of workers in the Chinese city of Shenzen.

The piece struck horror and compassion into the hearts and souls of Apple fans and customers who had never previously thought about the thousands of Chinese hands that touched their devices -- nor the often overworked human beings to which they are attached.

One of those affected people was Ira Glass, host and producer of NPR's popular weekly show "This American Life." The program's Jan. 6 episode featuring Daisey's monologue, which came out about three weeks before publication of an extensive New York Times investigation on labor abuses in Apple's supply chain, quickly became the most-downloaded episode in its history.

With the help of other articles written about Apple during the past month and a half, Daisey's stunning performance on "This American Life" set off a firestorm of complaints that has yet to relent. Last week, activists presented a petition with 250,000 signatures to one of the company's New York City stores demanding Apple improve the labor practices of its suppliers.

This week, in its latest agitated response to mounting public concern, Apple announced a new investigation into its largest supplier, Foxconn, at least suggesting it is taking serious action.

"The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" should give pause to anyone who claims that live theater is no longer powerful or relevant enough to create direct and measurable social or political change. Granted, theater directed at social change does not always create the buzz Daisey's play has -- mostly because a great deal of such theater tends toward bland polemics and lacks the chops of Daisey's delivery and the crackle of his writing.

Daisey's powerful piece gives a lesson about the importance of quality for those who would dare to employ theater as a tool for social change. Locally, one adherent of that philosophy is Chris LaBanca, whose burgeoning Aegis Project has set out to awaken young people across Western New York to the silent epidemic of rape on college campuses.

LaBanca's small troupe, which is currently touring a production of William Mastrosimone's jarring play "Extremities," shares Daisey's goals. The idea is to bring what has long been hidden into plain sight, or easy to dismiss into the hearts and minds of a new audience that may respond better to the visceral exchange of the theater than to the one-way street of printed journalism.

The same goes for Buffalo State College professor Drew Kahn's work with his Anne Frank Project and with Buffalo State's recent production of "The Laramie Project," about the murder of Matthew Shepard, at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. Ditto the Brazen Faced Varlets' production of "Words of Choice," about female reproductive rights.

As Daisey has proven, and as many here understand, a good play can still pack a heavy social punch.

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com