A boy is a child. A girl is a thing. These words greet the birth of Sunny Li in The World of Extreme Happiness, the new play from award-winning Playwright-in-Residence at the Manhattan Theatre Club, Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig. Sunny’s arrival into the world in 1992 rural China puts her place in her father’s heart somewhere below the female racing pigeon about whom he rhapsodizes and dreams. Accordingly, it is not even clear at first that he is talking about a pigeon and not a woman, while the newborn girl is quickly, albeit temporarily, consigned to a slop bucket to die. When we next meet Sunny (Jennifer Lim), she is 18 and part of the janitorial staff in an urban factory with a PR problem due to employee suicides. In response, Artemis Chang, vice-president of Price-Smart, the Walmart-esque corporation supplied by the factory, suggests a documentary touting the struggles and successes of their employees, to be introduced publicly by an appropriately appealing female peasant employee. While Sunny’s coworker Ming-Ming leads her into the world of self-help guru Mr. Destiny, the documentary leads her into competition with Ming-Ming, all of which ultimately forces her to make a fraught decision about whether or not she will speak truth to power.
The World of Extreme Happiness is a world in which even to touch a labor petition is treated as dangerous and strike organizers are kidnapped by their own family members in an attempt to dissuade them from their cause. The glittering Mr. Destiny puts the responsibility for poverty and exploitation on the individual and not the system. He tells his students to rewrite their past history (in Sunny’s case, to believe that she was always wanted and loved by her parents), advocating for a change in perspective rather than conditions. This approach, its own kind of exploitation, finds analogies not just in Price-Smart and Jade River Manufacturing rewriting their PR image but also in the authoritarian government’s rewriting of both history and present. Such reshaping is counterpointed by Sunny’s brother, Pete, who wants nothing more in life than to perform the role of the Monkey King from Chinese opera in tea houses. Monkey, a trickster, also reached heights above his original station, even drinking the Emperor’s wine and eating his food, through transforming himself; but Pete points out that Monkey’s transformations are always temporary and never completely obscure his authentic self.
While all of this sounds like it sets up a typical conflict between the corrupt urban wealthy and the upstanding rural poor, Happiness offers much more complexity than that. All of these characters are in some way caught up in the larger system. The head of Jade River, James Lin, fears too much public exposure and describes it as sticking his neck out. Artemis has a family past of subversion that she will never escape despite having rejected it in favor of government-sanctioned wealth and safety. Mr. Destiny, who tells others to elide unpleasant parts of the self or past in the service of aspirational thinking, is hiding some unpleasant facts about his own situation. As Artemis says, one can have either happiness and wealth or truth, but not both. Even Li Han, who wants the money that Sunny sends home for Pete’s education for his pigeons and tries to sell Sunny into marriage, undergoes a little late redemption when he won’t entirely follow the government’s script for a taped statement and (finally) calls Sunny “just a girl.” The inevitable end to Sunny’s story delivers an emotional punch and a reminder about the real power and costs of revolution and storytelling.
In this light, the doubling that the play engages in -- of James Lin and Sunny’s father, Li Han; of Artemis and peasant midwife Wang Hua; of Mr. Destiny and Sunny’s supervisor, Old Lao--takes on symbolic resonance, reminding the audience of how little actually divides the oppressors from the oppressed despite how much superficially separates them, but the actors disappear into their various roles so completely that it remains a very subtle effect. The actors create their characters as very real, complicated individuals, filling essential roles in the plot without remaining stereotypes: Jo Mei as Ming-Ming and Sue Jin Song as Artemis embody two possibilities for women in a world run by men, and Telly Leung’s Pete is a “typical” teenager until he reveals a surprising depth and love for his sister. James Saito plays two very different patriarchs, Li Han and James Lin, with weary warmth on the one hand and reserved self-interest on the other, and Francis Jue, emptily charismatic as Mr. Destiny, is very funny as he spars acerbically with Sunny as Old Lao, but he also delivers one of the most affecting speeches in the play when he puts her current woes into some historical perspective. Jennifer Lim as Sunny gives her all in an emotionally taxing role that anchors the entire play and demands vulnerability and compassion as much as it does fierceness and resolve, and she creates a character whom we forget is a semi-literate teenaged janitor in a factory 30 hours by bus from her home and family. The staging is economical but inventive and very effective in creating atmosphere, from the flash and noise of Mr. Destiny’s megachurch-style self-improvement class to the quiet isolation of the final scene.
The play is supplemented by an exhibit of images of contemporary China by Beijing photographer Sim Chi Yin, which hang in the lobby, and notes in the program that supplement the play’s examination of the institutions that control modern China, relieving the play itself of cumbersome exposition. Yin’s images are another reminder that The World of Extreme Happiness explores world issues on a personal scale, and it does so with a lot of humor, heart, and heartbreak. While leaving the theater, we heard another playgoer saying to someone, “The first part was better,” a tribute to how it is easier to sleep at night believing in the power of positive thinking, that opportunity is there for everyone, and that iPhones and Wal-Mart merchandise grow on trees, than to acknowledge one’s participation, active or passive, in an inescapable and corrupt system. (She was wrong, by the way.) - Leah Richards and John Ziegler
Dr. Richards is an English professor in NYC, and spends her free time raising three cats and smashing the patriarchy.
When not writing reviews, Dr. Ziegler spends a lot of his time being an Assistant Professor of English in NYC and playing guitar in a death metal band.