Goodman Theatre. By Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig. Directed by Eric Ting. With Jennifer Lim, Ruy Iskandar, Donald Li, Jodi Long, Jo Mei, Francis Jue. Running time: 2hrs 20mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig's muckraking depiction of a rural Chinese migrant worker's harrowing experience as a Shenzhen "factory girl" smacks a bit of Upton Sinclair's Chicago-set classic The Jungle. Cowhig's protagonist, Sunny (winningly played by Chinglish's Jennifer Lim), is the third girl to be born to her parents, but the first to survive being thrown out like newborn trash for not being a boy under China's one-child policy. She eventually gets a brother, Pete (Ruy Iskandar), and ends up raising him when her mother dies in childbirth, while her father (Donald Li) shows more affection to his female racing pigeons than he can muster for his daughter.
As a teenager, Sunny moves to the big city to work at a factory that manufactures products for an American big-box chain, under Foxconn-like conditions, sending her money back home to pay for Pete's education. Sunny dreams of becoming a "city girl," and rising through the ranks of her company. The sobering reality she encounters is where the parallels to Sinclair creep in, particularly in Cowhig's eye-opening treatment of the inequity between migrant workers and city dwellers that's built into Chinese law. The resonance with the treatment of undocumented workers in our own country is powerful, and Lim plays Sunny's bruised optimism—and, eventually, her too-sudden political awakening—with a spunk that gets us rallying behind her all the way to a horrifying end.
But much of what Cowhig and director Eric Ting (who will take this still-evolving work to Manhattan Theatre Club in the spring) surround Sunny with feels extraneous, including the depiction of an affair between the Chinese factory's president and the American company's Chinese-born VP of PR. A subplot which brings Sunny home to elude marrying a dead man, while an illustration of the lag between rural traditions and urban progress, also feels like a digression. Cowhig can't possibly capture all of modern China's many contradictions in two and a half hours; perhaps she'd do better to home in on the singular central character she and Lim have created.