Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s The World of Extreme Happiness reveals a modern China that shocks the sensibilities. It isn’t an easy story, but Cowhig’s bold writing supported by the production’s equally bold theatricality keep the story moving at a pace that is both provocative and entertaining. Revealing the irony of the play’s title, in this world “happiness” is an impossible dream.
The play opens with the birth of a baby in rural China. The baby, another girl, is deposited in a slops bucket with lid on believing she will die. When her father (James Saito) removes the lid the baby is not only still alive but is smiling at him so brightly he names her Sunny. She will be raised until puberty and then sold. Moving forward, Sunny (Jennifer Lim) is working in a city factory as a janitor. Saved from sale due to her mother’s death, she works hard to keep her younger brother, Pete (Telly Leung) in school. Suicides are common in the factories and a recent one has resulted in a better position being open. When Sunny meets Ming-Ming (Jo Mei) she accompanies her to a self-help/motivational gathering run by Mr. Destiny (Francis Jue). Mr. Destiny inspires Sunny to ask for the open position in the factory but when she confronts her supervisor (also Francis Jue) it requires a much more “hands on” approach to force him to give her the position. While Sunny’s story is taking place the head of the corporation that owns the factory (also James Saito) is disturbed by all the suicides. He and his colleague, Artemis Chang (Sue Jin Song) decide to make a promotional documentary to repair the image of the corporation and push the idea that the factories are helping to raise the peasants up by giving them work in the cities. They need a spokesperson for their film, “Factory Girl”, and Sunny wins the part. In a stunning revelation she learns from her supervisor the real history of the peasants in Mao’s People’s Republic during the fifties and sixties. Peasants were considered by Mao to be the country’s greatest natural resource and were essentially “mined” like coal to work and line the pockets of the wealthy and powerful. When Sunny is presented by Artemis Chang in the Great Hall of the People as the real Factory Girl she deviates from her pre-written speech praising the corporation to an impassioned protest speech revealing the corporation’s motives and the peasants’ real position – they are a commodity to be mined like coal.
Most actors in this exceptional ensemble play multiple roles, each role unique and easily distinguishable from the next, often walking off stage as one character and almost immediately walking back on stage as another. Each actor plays at least one character firmly grounded in the peasantry and another one who is part of the new more prosperous China. As Sunny, her only role, Jennifer Lim embodies the determined resourcefulness of a character that will take risk after risk to get what she needs for the sake of her brother while possessing the courage to expose corruption. Lim has the forthright dignity of someone who will do great things and be a hero to her people, which is exactly what Sunny’s brother tells her has happened when he visits her in the hospital. Whether he is lying for her sake or not is unknown but if such is the case, directly before the play’s troubling conclusion, it sends a message that her life has meaning and she will be revered rather than forgotten. She is a symbol of the spirit it takes to stand up, against all odds, for what you believe – a profound message in any country where inequality divides the growing “peasantry” from the wealthy few.
The World of Extreme Happiness – Written by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig. Directed by Eric Ting.
WITH: Francis Jue (Old Lao/Gao Chen/Mr. Destiny), Telly Leung (Pete/Ran Feng), Jennifer Lim (Sunny) Jo Mei (Ming-Ming/Qing Shu Min/Xiao Li), James Saito (Li Han/James Lin), Sue Jin Song (Artemis Chang/Wang Hua)
Scenic Design by Mimi Lien, Lighting Design by Tyler Micoleau, Costume Design by Jenny Mannis, Sound Design by Mikhail Fiksel, Fight Director, Thomas Schall, Production Stage Manager, Winnie Y. Lok, Press Representative, Boneau/Bryan-Brown. Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center Stage 1, 131 West 55th Street, New York, NY. http://www.manhattantheatreclub.com/, February 3rd – March 29th. Running time 95 minutes. No intermission.