The Chinese economy and its rapid expansion is a wonder of the modern world. But its ugly side drives the story in Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s new play.
"The World of Extreme Happiness" opens in New York next month. It’s a dark comedy about the hopes of rural migrants in China whose dreams look rather American.
The hero of the drama, 19-year old Sunny, works as a janitor and wants a promotion. She meets an older worker who explains the power of positive thinking.
“Action molds character,” proclaims Ming-Ming. “Character creates destiny.” Then she encourages Sunny to say her “mantra of belief” and change her fate even while cleaning tiles in the bathroom.
Later, Sunny meets the self-help guru Mr. Destiny who helps a crowd chant, “Three, Six, Nine, Eleven—We will make this life our heaven.”
Fired up by the idea that it’s her destiny to be rich and powerful, Sunny gets that promotion, but her success leads her down a grim path towards an end that is anything but happy.
Story of migrant hopes produced by a migrant
Playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig says her story is based on research and her own experience in China. She says Americans export a lot of self-help dogma there.
“The best selling genre among migrant workers is self-help books,” she says. “Many of which are translated from Western self-help books like "The Secret."”
The drive to succeed is not the only force shaping China in the story. In the opening scene, Sunny is born and tossed in a pig slop bucket because her parents want a boy. She survives, leaves the country for the city, and ends up working like a slave to put her brother through school. Her supervisor throws himself out a window.
"The World of Extreme Happiness" started with Cowhig’s interest in the life of migrants. Her parents worked in the U.S. State Department when she was growing up and she lived in various parts of the world including China. So when she was commissioned to write a new play, she decided to write about migration.
“Probably because I feel like a migrant or a refuge,” she says. “I’ve always moved.”
Cowhig is working on two more plays about life in the People’s Republic. She says there aren’t enough plays abut China in Western literature and she plans to fill that gap.
Steven Oxman agrees. He’s the Chicago theater critic for Variety. Oxman says what’s impressive about Cowhig’s play is its ability to capture the social forces churning modern China.
It’s the love of money, he says, that raises the big existential questions for the characters. He points to the moment in the play when Sunny is asked what she’ll do with her wealth and power and part of her answer is “get more power.”
“The whole notion of happiness is what’s being changed," says Oxman. “The possibilities of being happy are what [Sunny] is really seeing.”
The World of Extreme Happiness opens in February at the Manhattan Theatre Club.