The Daughters of 'The Joy Luck Club'
Amy Tan's acclaimed novel "The Joy Luck Club" has woven the warm and intriguing stories of four Chinese mothers and their daughters for readers of all generations today and still to come
This fall, the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre revives Susan Kim's stage-adaptation of The Joy Luck Club with a cast brimming with new and seasoned Asian-American actors, eager to bring this cherished tale to life.
BroadwayWorld.com's own News Desk Editor, Eugene Lovendusky, had the unique opportunity of chatting with the four "daughters" of The Joy Luck Club - Han Nah Kim (Jing Mei), Rosanne Ma (Rose), Tina Chilip (Waverly) and Sacha Iskra (Lena) - to discuss their shared experience in this play and the important role of Asians in American theatre
Eugene Lovendusky: Thank you all for taking a moment out of your busy day to talk to BroadwayWorld. I'm a big fan of this book, as a matter of fact. I come from San Francisco, where it's very culturally diverse, and read the novel back in high school - the material is so adaptable! Tell me a little bit about the storytelling in this novel and how it translates to the stage.
Han Nah Kim: Susan Kim (playwright) says the book is more vignettes and little stories, and how she adapted it to a play was by just adding a structure. The characters definitely have a journey that they go through, even though some are more fulfilled than others. She tried to encapsulate and put that down on paper in a very succinct way rather than with all the narrations.
Sacha Iskra: She gave us a very good frame to work in, so when we get up to do the story-telling - of course with the direction and working with everyone - it's almost like dancing because we flow with the stories. And because Amy Tan wrote something that is very fluid, even though in the books it's in vignettes, it's very stage-able. Doing the story live as actors on stage is almost easy, something we can breathe into.
Eugene: Is it done in vignettes?
Han Nah: It is but what is narration in the book comes out as subtext. It was interesting, going back to the book after reading the play. Tina and I were talking about filling in transitions with some of the ideas of the book
Sacha: We're lucky to have a play where we have a book to go to as well, and a playwright who gets to work with the author!
Eugene: This book is about four daughters and mothers from different provinces of China. But each of you has your own separate national backgrounds, which is very intriguing for this show. What is your national origin, what do you call home or where were you all raised?
Rosanne Ma: I was reared in California and born there. Both of my parents were born in Southern China. My mother was reared in Hong Kong and spent most of her life there. My father was from a small village called (translated) White Sands, really small.
Tina Chilip: I was born and raised in the Philippines but I'm ethnic-Chinese. Both my parents are Chinese-born and raised in the Philippines as well. In a way, the journey of the daughters trying to find their Chinese identity as Americans, I took it in a different context: being Chinese born and raised in the Philippines. It's very similar in trying to find identity. The daughters talk about wanting to be more American, and as they grow older wanting to find their Chinese roots. I found that to be true in myself, wanting to be more Filipino, but later on wanting to find your Chinese self.
Sacha: I am pretty much Filipino, but my mother's side of the family has a background in Spain and my father's mom is Chinese, who spoke Cantonese and Mandarin. I don't know a lick of either; or Spanish either. I speak Tagalog. For me, this play is really interesting because my grandparents had to go through what it was like in the Philippines during occupation. So when they found out I was doing this story, they were very quiet. There's something about Asians - and I don't want to make a blanket statement - but we don't like to talk about certain things. Tina and I were saying: "Oh my gosh, the interviewer's coming, what can we tell him?" [laughs] Amy Tan has written this wonderful story that says more than we feel we are able to tell. That's why Asians can be the Kings and Queens of Subtext. We live it. It's written on our faces but we're very good at hiding it too. This story got my family talking more about what they saw. Not all of it was pretty. The Chinese-side of the family had to reconcile that, when my grandfather married a Chinese woman. I told them "I'm doing a Chinese story, and I'm proud of it."
Han Nah: I'm Korean; and my dad was born in South Korea and my mother's family is actually from North Korea. They escaped the North during the Korean War because my grandfather was able to speak German and won of the trains that was coming down was run by German soldiers, so they escaped.
Eugene: These are all such fascinating stories and I imagine you're each going to bring a little bit of yourselves to these characters. Generation seems to be a very important theme in this story. How are you identifying with these characters or some of these generational stories?
Tina: Before you showed up, [laughs] I was saying that what I relate to the most is June being forced to play the piano because my mom wanted me to be a child prodigy by making me take piano lessons. My teachers would always quit on me. I had one teacher who stayed the longest, but the only reason she stayed so long is because she kept falling asleep. And then she told my mom I was so good! [laughs] She reminds me of Old Man Chong, the piano teacher in the play. And finally I told my mom: "I'm not good! She's just sleeping!"
Sacha: Ironically, I had to beg for piano lessons. I was the personality type, once I decided to focus on something, I learned it the best I could. The story I identify with is Waverly's story, where she has a moment with her mother where she says: "You want to be so great then why don't you play chess?" I actually had that fight with my mother. Because whenever we're in a family party, us kids would have to get up, and whoever had a talent you could bring to a party, would have to play the piano in front of all the adults. We had huge parties! A little birthday party is 45 people crammed into a two-bedroom apartment. I exploded at my mother at age 12, I said to my mother: "You want to be in the center of attention, why don't you learn how to play the piano yourself!" And she gave me a look like a basilisk! She did that thing where she talked to me but she didn't you can tell when an Asian mother isn't talking to you for a whole month! I learned how to mind my Ps and Qs after that one.
Rosanne: I was thinking about that question because we were pre-told what you might ask us about our lives [laughs] and I have to say that I'm very different from my character. Though my actual mother is very similar to my character's mother. There's a phrase called "born without wood" and basically that means one bends too easily to listen to other people's thoughts. My mother is very much like that, very superstitious, she'll listen to her friends, someone can persuade her to do things. I'm different; I research before I make decisions. I was very independent of my parents' thoughts and what they thought I should be, my career and how I should live my life. I wasn't really a rebel but I think they accepted I was going to do whatever I wanted to do. My character in The Joy Luck Club, Rose, basically doesn't want to take responsibility in her own life, because if she does, she'll have to share the credit in her own tragedies. I'm just the kind of person who will take responsibility even if it is the wrong decision. It has been an interesting challenge for me. There's always something that I can use for a character I think at first I can't connect with. I'm still discovering that.
Han Nah: What I relate to most is the barrier between the generations - the mothers and the daughters. What's interesting is that the girls grow up in the 50s, 60s and 70s. There's a language barrier and cultural barrier between the mothers and daughters. I moved here in 1981 with my parents and the same barriers existed. Different time but sort of the same story. A lot of huge pressure from my parents; their American dream of coming over here with two girls and working jobs that they are far too educated to work, but they wanted to bring their kids over here for this opportunity. Of course the kids just want to fit in. They want to bring their parents to school, to open-house and not have to worry that their parents can't speak English, aren't dressing like other parents. There was this rift between my parents and my sister and I, because we wanted different things from America. They saw all these wonderful things that were going to happen for us; and me becoming an actor was definitely not one of those things. When I was in San Diego I was in modern dance and my parents definitely thought it was a hobby. But as soon as I got serious and started talking about moving to New York, they got really upset. You could tell their panic, but it was all in subtext. Right before I left, they were so discouraging of me coming here but now they couldn't be more supportive. I feel like if I do something that makes me happy, then people are able to share in that joy even if they never saw that that could lead to any kind of success. With my character, her never getting to meet her mother - because her mother passes away two months before the play starts - the resolution that she's going to keep going her own way, things will fall into place. You can still connect to your background but you still have to be your own person.
Eugene: Wow, I'm kind of envious of all these cool life stories.
Sacha: Oh, I'm sure you have some of your own
Eugene: I do! But no plays are written for it! [laughs] I want to talk about Pan Asian Rep for a second, and what they provide you. Rosanne, this is your return to the show after nine years. What does this company provide you that other companies do not?
Han Nah: This is my first show with Pan Asian, and the cast of 15 actors can sometimes be overwhelming because there are different generations because there are different generations. People in the cast who have been working 35+ years in the industry where it was a very different game, and that is something I've never experienced before.
Tina: It's nice to have a community of Asian actors of different backgrounds. I just moved to New York a year ago. In my class, there were only two of us who were Asian, we would bond by having dim-sum every Sunday [laughs] There's a lot of camaraderie just from having a shared experience there, it's nice to have a little family.
Rosanne: It very much is a family. I realize that is how Tisa Chang (Director) sees her actors, as her children. In her direction and in the way she conducts rehearsals, there's times of frustration and there's times that she sees such beautiful things on-stage. A lot of times when she watches the scenes, she'll cry, she'll be emotional. I really do think she sees everyone, her cast and her crew, she's very protective of them. That's what I try to remember when things get frustrating (which is inevitable in every production) but over the eight years I've been here. I have developed the familiarity. Also, Tisa gave me my first professional opportunity. And I've been privileged to have roles that are so juicy and to really portray really fantastic characters. And that's something that's rare in TV and film.
Eugene: Is it also rare as Asian-American females?
Sacha: Oh yeah! In this town? I'll cut some slack and say it's getting better. We get opportunities at better roles and there's more color-blind casting and it's not assuming it's going to be a Caucasian or African-American role. It's up to whoever comes in that day and does very well. I've been acting professionally since 2001, and I was lucky to get something right out of the gate. But I remember it getting really heavy by the third year. I was thinking to myself "I'd like to do something darker, something more interesting." I was doing a lot of dancing and ensemble singing work. And I wanted some really interesting stories. It can be really hard to get that. Especially in the world of musical theatre, because there's a preset ways in book musicals in the way things are cast. What I appreciate about Pan Asian is that they just see me It's not often I can just show myself. Asian or not. American or not. That's what Pan Asian gives their actors.
Rosanne: I think that we are seeing more roles for Asian-Americans because we're seeing more Asian-American writers. Yes, that's huge! It's almost become weird or un-PC not to see a diverse cast in things like Shakespeare, or things that don't need to be a specific race. It actually puzzles me when I see entire shows coming out with a principle cast that's all Caucasian that's supposed to represent New York or America. We're not even a minority anymore. [laughs] It's just odd
Eugene: I'm really glad we're talking about this!
Sacha: Can you report that in a really nice way?
Eugene: No no no! I was going to ask about this. I have in my notes "get edgy." [laughs]
Tina: I have to say as an audience member, it's important to me. It's very exciting to see an Asian-American actor on-stage. You see yourself back.
Han Nah: There are a lot of really great Asian-American actors.
Rosanne: who deserve great stories to tell.
Sacha: Or if you see "the token." As a musical theatre actors I've only been getting more work in straight-plays recently. In the musical theatre world, we call them "tokens" unabashedly. Oh! There's the Asian! There's the African-American! What's thrilling is when it's a lead role or a supporting role. I know taking a chance on Audra McDonald isn't really taking a chance because she's absolutely magnificent. But she did play Lizzie in 110 in the Shade and that was amazing. And she was black. And it didn't matter in the slightest.
Eugene: All right, for a feel-good question to wrap it all up What are audiences going to take home with them after an evening with The Joy Luck Club?
Rosanne: I bet that people are going to think "Oh, this is a funnier story than I thought." When you think about the book or the movie, everyone's crying crying crying But there's so much humor in some of the scenes of this show!
Tina: I also think it's a universal story. Not just Asian-American mothers and daughters, but everyone has that generational gap between their parents and I think people will be able to relate.
Han Nah: And also seeing all those actors who have been around for a long time all on the stage together, is going to be thrilling for people who have seen them in the past. It's just such a great story. Susan Kim did a really great job with the play and it is very theatrical.
Sacha: This is an Asian story, but it's a story that everyone has loved and it's a story that has been translated into 12 - 15 languages for a reason. We all want to know who we are and where we come from and we find that out from looking back. Everybody who looks at the story will walk out with that and want to know more. Hopefully. Because that's how you become a full person. That's what I hope people take from it.
Eugene: You've all been very sweet. Thank you. Congratulations.
All: Thank you!
Eugene: You guys start
Sacha: Sunday, October 28. You'll be there right?
Eugene: I wouldn't miss it.
The Pan Asian Repertory Theatre's revival of Susan Kim's The Joy Luck Club, based on Amy Tan's award-winning novel, begins performances at the Julia Miles Theatre on Sunday, October 28; officially opening off-Broadway on November 7 with performances through November 25.
Photos by Eugene Lovendusky: clockwise from bottom left: Sacha Iskra, Tina Chilip, Han Nah Kim and Rosanne Man; Sacha Iskra; Han Nah Kim; Tina Chilip; Rosanne Ma; l-r: Tina Chilip, Sacha Iskra, Han Nah Kim and Rosanne Ma (by John Quincy Lee)