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Review: Confusing and late: the play “The World of Extreme Happiness”

The World of Extreme Happiness. Program cover.By Wen Liu   Nov. 4, 2017

The Seattle Public Theater, in co-production with SIS Productions, has been presenting “The World of Extreme Happiness” at the Bathhouse Theater on Green Lake from Oct. 13, with last show on Sunday Nov. 5. The play, by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, first debuted in New York in 2015, leaves the audience instead a sense of extreme confusion.

The plot is supposed to be about a girl called Sunny in China who survived a near infanticide by her own poor peasant parents, hoping for the fourth time for a son, became a sanitary worker at a factory where her unit manager jumped to death from the building, grew to be a protestor on behalf of her fellow workers, only to be tortured into a coma by the police, and ended up dying a “mercy death” at the hands of her brother.

It would have been a pretty good story if the playwright had stayed focused on the grievances and struggles of China’s migrant workers, often young women, in cities such as Shenzhen, especially in the context of worker suicides around 2010 at Foxconn, the world's largest contract electronics manufacturer of iPhone, iPads and other products. That, however, was not the case.

Through other characters, the play brought up the famine under Mao in the 1950s, the Tiananmen student protests in 1989, and the old rural tradition of ghost marriages, etc. One gets lost as to what the play was about.

Seattle Public Theater

One other confusing and complicated subject was worker rights and unions in China. While there is a government sponsored All China Federation of Trade Unions, companies like Foxconn are foreign owned, Taiwan in this case, with contract work from Apple, for instance. When a character like Sunny protested for her rights and better working conditions, it was not the Chinese state she was protesting, but owners like Terry Gou and indirectly Steve Jobs.

Confusing, all over the place, and caricatural, the play also came a little too late. Not only have wages been rising in manufacturing centers in China, forcing companies to move their work to other lower-wage countries, cities like Shenzhen have also become more high tech centers than assembling towns.

An accompanying and real life irony is that Foxconn is building plants in the U.S., first a $10 billion LCD-screen plant in Wisconsin, as Terry Gou announced back in July, and then a multibillion-dollar research and development plant in Michigan, focused on autonomous vehicles.

Finally, the title of the play “The World of Extreme Happiness” seems to be a translation of the Chinese term 极乐世界, meaning the extreme happy afterworld or outer world, or a place of perfect bliss, Elysium. What a strange choice for a play that seems to try to be uplifting for female workers like Sunny, yet says at the same time it may be better not to have been in this world after all.

(For more information on major events in Washington state-China relations, go to WA China Chronicle.)