The World of Extreme Happiness

A new play asks the price of success in rapidly globalizing China.

By rights, Sunny, the main character in Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s play The World of Extreme Happiness, shouldn’t be alive. Her father, upon seeing she was a baby girl, threw her into a bucket and left her to die. Saved in a last-minute rescue, it’s no surprise that grown-up Sunny, who has spent her life trying to prove that her life is worth something, is attracted to the zippy positivity and endless aspirations of self-help culture, which infiltrated modern China along with industrial globalization. Cutting back between the poor Chinese countryside and the smog- and factory-filled urban land of opportunity, Cowhig’s episodic play navigates this complex world of cognitive dissonance, of a country booming at a mind-boggling rate.

“What do you do with a billion people who have always known a lifestyle of poverty?” asks director Desdemona Chiang. “And when you start infusing money into that situation, what do you do about the way that can get out of hand? What is right, what is wrong and what is actually moral?”

In 2010, a rash of suicides and suicide attempts at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, where electronics are made for companies such as Apple and Hewlett-Packard, made international headlines. Extreme Happiness was inspired in part by those stories, and the brutal conditions that led to the deaths.

“It’s useful for us to find the comedy with this one, because this play gets pretty dark,” Chiang laughs.

Extreme Happiness is a co-presentation between Seattle Public Theater and SIS Productions, a company dedicated to work involving Asian American women and Asian American issues. Chiang jumped at the chance to direct when asked by SPT’s co-producing artistic director Annie Lareau; she’s been a fan of the play since she workshopped it with Cowhig in San Francisco several years ago, before it went on to runs in Chicago and off-Broadway with Manhattan Theatre Club in 2015. Chiang, herself a politically and social justice-focused person and artist, appreciates both Cowhig’s form and content, and the delicate way they intertwine to tell nuanced stories.

“She writes stories about the ways individuals are affected by systems that they can’t control,” Chiang says. “It’s very personal, too, but she deals with larger issues in a way that I find compelling.” Her writing, Chiang says, is incredibly efficient and almost “Pinter-esque, in a weird way,” because of how much she can convey with one line or even one word. It looks sparse on the page, but read aloud, the layers of subtext are so deep you can dive into them.

Just as Sunny is swept up by a charismatic man named Mr. Destiny, who insists that workers can better themselves through positive thinking, she gets swept up in a marketing campaign to put a good face on a company doing bad business. She must confront a problem she never thought she’d have: How far will she go to succeed?

The World of Extreme Happiness
Oct. 13–Nov. 5

Seattle Public Theater