As I walked out of the theater after watching The World of Extreme Happiness, I was reminded of the time eleven-year-old me tried to watch Schindler’s List by myself because I thought it was necessary for my moral education. I only made it as far as watching the old one-armed man get shot.
The World of Extreme Happiness is a play by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig that just ended its run in Manhattan after playing in London and Chicago. It stars Sunny Li, a girl who is born in rural China, and then literally tossed into a bucket of pig slop to die, because her parents want a boy, and, as her mother says, the life of a girl is misery. It’s implied that her parents have disposed of at least four other girls this way, and that the village midwife habitually kills baby girls as well. Sunny survives because her sunny smile unexpectedly softens her father, who rescues her from the bucket.
Nineteen years later, she’s left the countryside for a job scrubbing toilets in a factory in Shenzhen, sending her wages back home to support her father and to keep her younger brother Pete in school (her mother died giving birth to Pete). Sunny’s life changes when she meets Ming-Ming, a fellow factory worker who takes her to a glitzy self-help class run by a guru named Mr. Destiny, who convinces her that she can have a bright future by changing the story of her past, and by fiercely believing that she deserves it. Frenetic chants of “Wealth, power, fame, honor” echo through the theater as Sunny embraces her new self.
As its title suggests, The World of Extreme Happiness does not deal in subtleties. I was annoyed at times by its broad-brush treatment of certain issues that the Western audience was presumably familiar with, like the stereotypically callous attitude towards girl babies displayed by Sunny’s parents. If all rural villagers felt that way about girls, the population imbalance in China would be even worse than it is. Foxconn is repeatedly name dropped; worker suicides are a PR problem for Sunny’s factory as well. The characters, too, feel like archetypes: Sunny’s pigeon-obssessed father and supervisor Old Lao as the old-school Chinese who disparage the younger generation; Artemis Chang and James Lin as the nouveau riche business owners exploiting the factory workers; Sunny, Pete, and Ming-Ming as the youths with stars in their eyes.
We see the characters try to cut off the past, but they can’t leave it behind. It turns out Sunny’s father is obsessed with his pigeons because they belonged to his brother, who died during the Tiananmen Square student protests. But he pretends to his children that he never even had a brother in the first place. Artemis Chang, a powerful female business owner held up as a paragon of the new, rich China, is kidnapped to drink tea with the Public Security Bureau and warned to toe the line because her entire family was killed as counterrevolutionaries during the Cultural Revolution. And as Pete and Sunny try to save Ming-Ming from a botched suicide attempt, Old Lao schools them on suffering, telling the story of how his family saved themselves during Mao’s Great Famine by resorting to cannibalism.
Throughout the play, the story of the Monkey King is used as inspiration for the change that Sunny wants in her life. But in the end, 72 transformations aren’t enough to save her. She is chosen to speak at a PR event held in the Great Hall of the People, telling the world how factory work changed her life and that of other rural migrant workers for the better. If she says her lines well, she’ll get a front office job. But after all that’s happened, Sunny can’t hold back the truth, and it’s the truth that destroys her. She is locked up in an asylum, tortured, injected with drugs. Her father confesses and denounces her on TV. Her brother sneaks in to the asylum to see her, and tries to soothe her with an unbelievable story about how she has inspired a “Sunshine Revolution,” but she is broken. Barely able to speak, she begs Pete to change her. So, in what’s portrayed as an act of mercy, he does.
The World of Extreme Happiness portrays China as a hollow society where the choice is to either tell the truth and be destroyed, or to lie and make it. And even then, you might get invited to drink tea. The play is relentless in showing the dark sides of Chinese society, but there are plenty of barbs for the Western audience as well. At one point, a female Public Security Bureau officer asks, referring to China’s human rights, “Why should we change when everyone wants to sleep with us just the way we are?” In another scene, Old Lao disparages tourists who buy t-shirts of Mao and his Little Red Book, when he killed five times as many people as Hitler.
I firmly believe in the importance of political plays. In London in 2003, I had the chance to see a play called “Justifying War: Scenes from the Hutton Inquiry,” which was a dramatization of an inquiry into the death of weapons expert Dr. David Kelly, whose work was used to support the existence of WMDs, and ultimately the Iraq War. What I found wonderful was the intense engagement of the audience with the play, and the kind of society where a play could be staged that examined whether the government was justified to go to a highly politically contentious war, and only months after the fact. In that spirit, I look forward to the day when a play like The World of Extreme Happiness can be performed in China.
Like my childhood experiment with Schindler’s List, The World of Extreme Happiness is the type of story that we watch at least partly because we feel an obligation to understand what happens in the world, but that doesn’t make watching it less difficult.
It felt strange, after seeing Sunny’s story, to emerge to a sunny March day in New York. We decided to go to Central Park, to try to recover a little from the heartbreak. There were snowdrops blooming under the trees. Ahead of us, we saw a crowd gathered around one of the walkways. They were surrounding an old Chinese man with an erhu, playing The Star-Spangled Banner.