A few weeks before rehearsals began for The King of Hell’s Palace, playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig sat down with the play’s dramaturg, Rebecca Adelsheim, to discuss the people and events that inspired her work.
Rebecca Adelsheim: Goodman audiences will remember your play The World of Extreme Happiness, and will likely see a number of parallels, especially to your interest in Chinese social policies. What drew you to this particular issue?
Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig: During the ‘90s, I attended an international high school in Beijing. At that time, my father worked in the Environment, Science and Technology section of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. His job involved traveling around China and reporting on public health issues. This was how he met Dr. Wang Shuping, a Henan doctor and research scientist who was working at an Epidemic Control Station in Zhoukou township in Henan province, and who discovered that the government-run plasma stations were massively contaminated and spreading hepatitis and AIDS. Dr. Wang is viewed as a heroic “Joan of Arc” figure among public health officials in China because of the amount of persecution she endured as a result of her whistle-blowing. For about 10 years, my father kept suggesting that I write a play inspired by her story. Four years ago I pitched this idea to the Goodman, received a commission to write the play and started interviewing Dr. Wang at her home in Salt Lake City.
RA: You’ve spoken about how most of your plays are centered on trauma and recovery, a theme that certainly rings true for this play. Why has it become central to your work?
FC: I have spent a lot of my adult life living in California, which I view as ground zero of American New Age Cosmology—which in a way can be understood as the ultimate immigrant religion and an attempt to free oneself of intergenerational trauma. I’ve witnessed some pretty extreme versions of these rituals on a commune in the mountains of northern California, and am just so interested in all the ways we try to save, cleanse, reboot and renew ourselves in order to start over. This, coupled with the decade of my life spent in East Asia, and seeing how trauma is dealt with on a national and personal level has always fascinated me. These attempts can differ based on things like class, age and race. And then, intimately, whenever I personally experience grief or depression as the result of some trauma, I always find myself thinking, ‘Okay, what should I do? How am I going to save myself and escape these terrible feelings?’ I find the theme of trauma and recovery so fascinating because I have witnessed, in very intimate ways, how those tensions resonate and ripple at a personal, familial, national and international level in manners that are so complex, and often bizarre, that they are very visual and inherently theatrical.