There's a promise of cultural exploration in playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig's name alone. "My mother is from Taiwan and my father is Boston Irish," she explained. "I've always been interested in migration and the collision of cultures and belief systems, so all of my plays deal with that in some way. It's just kind of the water I was raised in."
Her latest play, The World of Extreme Happiness, explores the modern cultural and economic transformations that have shaken both rural and urban China over the past two decades. TheaterMania spoke with Cowhig about her creative inspiration behind the Manhattan Theatre Club coproduction, now receiving its world premiere at Chicago's Goodman Theatre in advance of a New York City Center mounting. East Coast audiences will have to wait until February 2015 to see the new comic drama onstage, but Cowhig shared a few early reactions from the Windy City.
How did you develop your interest in exploring Chinese culture for this play?
I lived in Beijing for five years as a teenager and then also spent quite a bit of time in Chengdu in my twenties, so I had the opportunity to see firsthand just how quickly everything was changing in Beijing. I lived there from 1996-2001 and very surreal things were happening. When the Olympic committee came into town, they spray-painted all the dead trees green and seeded the clouds to make it rain to wash all the pollution away. When I was in Chengdu, I had the opportunity to meet with a number of Chinese dissident writers who [explained] how they had to report to the police station every month to tell them what they were writing about. And my mother's family is from rural Taiwan so I have a lot of familiarity with rural life and peasantry through her family. Her brothers work in the factories in China, so it's just an amalgamation of a lot of life experience and also a lot of research.
Are the stories you tell in the play based on true stories you were told by your family or people you met in China?
More the concepts. This one writer Liao Yiwu who lives in exile in Berlin gave me the frame of thinking of China as a nation full of people with PTSD because of how quickly it's changed. He wrote this amazing book of stories called The Corpse Walker....The lived experiences that he collected were definitely a huge influence on the play, as was this book called Factory Girls by Wall Street Journal reporter Leslie Chang. She lived with factory girls in Shenzhen over a period of time and got an insider look at how inundated they were with the culture of self-help. Self-help books are the most popular genre among migrant workers. That was really fascinating to me because it's a really powerful form of social control.
Your play opens in 1992 with a baby girl being left for dead in a slop bucket. Was this a common practice among Chinese families in the '90s?
Yeah. It was partly because of the one-child policy and partly because girls just weren't valued. It was quite common for girls to be killed or disposed of or left on the front doors of hospitals because what families really wanted was boys. China still has the highest female suicide rate, [primarily] among rural women in the countryside.
Do you see yourself as a spokesperson for this population on Chinese women?
It's complicated because I'm American. I'm half Chinese and my Chinese is from Taiwan so I think no matter where I am I'm always somehow an outsider and somehow slightly inside. I'm also very tall. [laughs] But I definitely feel powerful solidarity with Chinese women who are struggling to have basic rights. And also a powerful desire for my fellow Asian-American women who are struggling in the arts. Especially actresses who are trying to get meaty roles. I really want to, wherever I can, lend my voice and my help towards them in service to that goal.
Chinese stories are not very common in the American theater. How have audiences been responding so far?
They seem to be responding quite well. I think there's a disbelief that this is contemporary because most representations of China are kind of Pearl Buck era and culturally exotic. This is a very different understanding of China that you haven't seen onstage before. It's a funny thing because these people seem so far away but then we touch the products of their labor everyday. Probably eighty percent of what we touch is made by girls like these. It's an interesting way to think about bridging the gap between these two worlds.
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