Arts in Color is honored to share the stories of Jennifer Lim (Sunny) and Telly Leung (Pete) of The World of Extreme Happiness as they premiere this intense and enlightening piece of theater, this month, Off-Broadway.
Manhattan Theater Club’s The World of Extreme Happiness (Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig) transports us to Shenzhen, China, where we find that the idea of the “American dream” can ring as loudly in the East as it does in the States. We follow Sunny who, despite her being illiterate and unwanted from birth, travels from a rural farmland to the industrial city of Shenzhen in search of her greater destiny amongst the working class. To Americans, Shenzhen may be known as the city where iPhones are made. The World of Extreme Happiness takes us to a factory of similar success. As a string of fates of her co-workers end in suicide, Sunny finds an opportunity to advance herself to the coveted “office job,” but is faced — like many Americans — with asking herself, “What am I willing to sacrifice in order to rise?”
AIC: Please tell us briefly about Sunny, and how your process has been finding this character within yourself.
Jennifer: Sunny – the play’s protagonist – is an 18-year old migrant worker in China who traveled from the rural countryside to the city when she was 14 in search of work in the factories. We follow her through a series of events that culminates in her not only finding and understanding who she is, but also her rightful place in society.
I think from the very start, this character resonated quite deeply with me on a number of levels. Her determination and drive to want more, to dream big, and to fight against all the obstacles life has thrown her way is something that anyone who’s had to leave and travel far from home can relate to. However, there were two big breakthroughs I had during my process – one was the discovery that the relationship between Sunny and her younger brother Pete was key in unlocking a lot of what motivates her (I have a brother myself, who’s 14 years younger than me, whom I adore and would move heaven and earth for, so I could identify completely). The second was the realization that whilst Sunny may be young and peasant-born, she is not innocent or naive in any way. She was never sheltered from the harsh realities of her life, and despite being uneducated, does not lack in intelligence or drive. She is as proud as she is smart, which is what makes her so bull-headed in her pursuit of her dreams. Finding all this gave me what I needed to ground the character for myself in a very real way.
AIC: Seeing as you had the opportunity to play Sunny in Chicago last Fall, how does it feel to return to this character in another city, space, and with another cast?
Jennifer: It’s always such a treat to be able to have another crack at a meaty role in a great play. All the work that was done the first time around is there to draw from and deepen. It’s incredibly satisfying. This being a new play as well, all of us learned so much from the Chicago production and have been rigorous in our attempts to clarify and sharpen the story we’re telling. Aside from the new cast members, significant changes have been made to the script and many of the design elements. Half the cast is new, so their fresh eyes and ears were also an invaluable resource in providing insight for this production.
AIC: As a female protagonist, what message can young women today, especially young Asian-American women, take away from Sunny and her story?
Jennifer: For me, Sunny’s story is one of her journey towards self-actualization. In her pursuit of re-defining and searching for who she is, she has to lose herself before she can truly come into her own and reconcile the struggle between the responsibility to herself versus the responsibility she feels towards others and the world at large. The most powerful tool she has at her disposal is that of choice. We may not always have a say in what happens around us, or the ability to control outcomes, but we always have a choice in how we live our lives and the values that govern them. Even in the final moments of the play, Sunny fights for her right to choose. This last act of defiance, in the face of what she has been through, is what makes her a female protagonist worthy of our respect and attention.
AIC: What was the audition process like for this show?
Jennifer: I was originally called in for the role of the other 2 female tracks – Wang Hua/Artemis, and Ming-Ming/Qing Shu Min. After reading the play, I just assumed they were looking for a younger actress for the part of Sunny. During the audition, Eric (our director) asked me which of the 2 tracks resonated with me more. I gave some non-committal reply but was thinking the whole time that Sunny was the character that spoke strongest to me. When I got my call-back, I threw pride out the window and asked if they would see me read for Sunny. Turns out they were absolutely ok with that and explained the reason I wasn’t asked in the first place was because there was an “elegance” to me that they weren’t sure was right for the role. So I showed up at the callback sans make-up, dressed in run down work clothes, and got the part. Goes to show, it never hurts to ask!
AIC: What has been a highlight of this process in NY for you?
Jennifer: I can’t begin to express how excited I am that MTC has chosen to produce THE WORLD OF EXTREME HAPPINESS as part of their 2014-15 season. It’s a huge deal that a venerable and acclaimed theater organization like this has taken such a progressive step in showcasing a play where all the characters are Chinese and the story is told without a Western lens. Judging from our audience’s response to the production so far, mainstream American theater has the capacity to embrace stories that are as diverse as the world we live in. Hopefully, more of the eminent theaters in this country will follow MTC’s lead and produce works that reflect the range of cultures and values we see more of in only TV and film today.
AIC: Please tell us briefly about Pete, and how your process has been finding this character within yourself.
Telly: Pete is the little brother of our heroine, Sunny Li. Sunny has moved away from their rural home to work as a janitor in a factory in the city of Shenzhen in order to support her family and pay for Pete’s tuition. The sacrifice she makes for her family is one that reflects the experience of many migrant workers in China today. Pete has no aspirations to go to school. All he wants to do is be a performer in the Chinese opera – and perform the famous role of “Monkey King”.
It was not hard for me to find Pete. We are similar. I, too, grew up with aspirations to perform. I also have a deep connection to Monkey King as well. I grew up in a very traditional Chinese home and my grandfather shared the stories of the Monkey King with me all the time. American kids have Batman and Superman. Chinese kids have Monkey King. As a Chinese-American kid, I had BOTH.
AIC: Since you are recognized as mostly a musical theatre artist, have you found anything uniquely fulfilling about being a part of the “straight play” process?
Telly: I am relishing the opportunity to do a play. I had wonderful formal acting training at Carnegie Mellon University that has prepared me for this challenge but show business has a funny way of needing to categorize and pigeon-hole artists. Because I entered this business as a musical theater performer, I think most people in the industry assume that it is all I do. Don’t get me wrong: I LOVE MUSICALS and I’m thankful for all the opportunities I’ve had in that world. But, I’ve recently made an effort to stretch my other skills as well. I’ve done a ton of teaching and producing – and now, I’m acting in a “straight play.” In my mind, I have always been an artist that can create in MANY genres. I’m glad that the wonderful folks at MTC agree, and are giving me the opportunity to show that to the rest of the world as well.
AIC: What has been one of the biggest challenges with bringing such a specific play to an audience in Manhattan, which could be presumably unaware of this reality abroad?
Telly: Our play is unapologetic in the way that we talk about China and the benefits and drawbacks of that country’s recent economic expansion. That quality is one of the things that truly drew me to this piece. Even though our story is set in a specific time/place that might be foreign to our Manhattan audience, I think that the audience will be able to relate and see themselves in ALL of these characters – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Doesn’t matter if you are from Boston or Beijing: the pursuit for “extreme happiness” is universal.
Show info: via Manhattan Theater Club’s website
What do you think about what Jennifer and Telly had to say? Will you be seeing the show? Leave a comment below!