Director Eric Ting and playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig in rehearsal for The World of Extreme Happiness
  • courtesy Goodman Theatre
  • Director Eric Ting and playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig in rehearsal for The World of Extreme Happiness

“The world of extreme happiness” is a literal translation of the Chinese term for “heaven.” It is also the title of Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s new play, which opens at the Goodman Theatre on September 13. It’s the story of Sunny, a girl from rural China who, as a newborn, was thrown into a pig slop bucket to die by parents who were disappointed she wasn’t a boy. As a teenager, she moves to the city of Shenzhen to work in a factory to earn money for her brother’s education. There she comes under the influence of a coworker with an obsessive belief in the power of self-help and begins scheming to improve her lot in life.

“Self-help is the number one genre of books among Chinese migrant workers,” says Cowhig. “It’s a very effective form of social control. It’s not society, it’s not politics, it’s your internal formation that’s wrong, and you can change yourself. It creates a myth among the most vulnerable population that if you change your perspective, it will all be OK.”

Cowhig, whose father was born in Boston and whose mother was born in Taiwan and who grew up in both the United States and in Beijing, was very careful to maintain a Chinese perspective in The World of Extreme Happiness. In many plays about contemporary China that are intended to be viewed by a primarily American audience, the action is viewed through Western eyes. Cowhig, however, didn’t feel that was necessary. She wanted her play to have an all-Asian cast. (It also has an Asian-American director, Eric Ting.) The dialogue, although it’s entirely in English, is stylized, filled with metaphors and proverbs, meant to give the audience a sense that these Chinese characters are actually speaking Chinese.

Ting emphasizes that this is not a story about modern China. China is too big and varied for that. Instead, it’s a story about people who happen to live in China, and he hopes American audiences will be able to identify, even without the intercession of an American character. “I’m excited about finding moments where an American audience has a spark of recognition,” he says. “At that moment, there’s a bridge.”

I’m not sure why the cast and crew of The World of Extreme Happiness think they have to take the “try it, you’ll identify with it, too!” approach to attract non-Chinese audiences. Non-white audiences have to do this almost all the time. It also reminds me of the kerfuffle earlier this summer when Ira Glass tweeted that he thought Shakespeare sucked because he didn’t find Richard III or Twelfth Night “relatable” and Rebecca Mead responded with a withering essay against “relatability” in the New Yorker. Shouldn’t they have enough faith that the characters and situations they have created are compelling enough as they are? (And if the Goodman has to depend on audience relatability for funding, that’s a sad commentary on the theater right now.)

I’ve only read the script of The World of Extreme Happiness, which, in this case, is not a lot to go on: Cowhig is a playwright who allows directors and actors plenty of room to come up with their own interpretations. But the potential for an interesting play is there—whether you can personally empathize with the plight of migrant workers or not—and I’m looking forward to seeing how it comes off onstage.