The Joy Luck Club, the new production at the Vintage Theatre's new home, weaves a tapestry of relationships, memories and tragedies in its depiction of Chinese and Chinese-American women.
During World War II, the invasion of China by neighboring Japan inspired a wave of Chinese immigrants to move to the U.S., an ally of China during that time. The Japanese invasion proves tragic for many of the women in this story, and the play -- based on Amy Tan's 1989 novel of the same name -- aims to convey how these women not only cope with these tragedies but how they grow in their relationships with one another.
The women of the play form the "Joy Luck Club" to play mahjong, keep company and take their minds off the troubles they endure. They are coping with the loss of home and familiarity, learning the complexities of their new cultural surroundings, grieving deaths and other losses, and navigating the rough waters of motherhood.
"It's about mothers and daughters," says Kim Yan, the actress playing the role of An-Mei Hsu, a mother and member of the Joy Luck Club. "It's mainly about the immigrant mothers coming to America and having Chinese-American born daughters, and the differences in having those same traditional values and having a daughter grow up in America."
Yan is no stranger to navigating these parental and cultural relationships; she is a first generation Chinese-American. "My parents immigrated from Hong Kong. I was the first born here in this country, growing up American and trying to understand my mother," she recalls. "Actually, it's interesting doing the role reversal, here, and really understanding some of the nuances. It's very cathartic, actually."
For Jennifer So, who plays An-Mei's daughter, Rose, the connections are subtle, but present. "I really connected with my father's influence, because my mother's American. He didn't teach me Chinese or celebrate any Chinese New Year... just American holidays," she says. "With my character of Rose, she feels the pressure of her mother, just making her mother proud...I get to see a glimpse of a little bit more pressure from parents. I still had it from him. I wasn't always listening to him, but it definitely influenced me to realistically look at how I go about life and making sure I'm honoring the family."
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But though there are cultural divides to bridge, there is a level of universality to the story, too. "I think it actually showcases how similar we all are more than it does differentiate," says Craig Bond, the show's director and artistic director of Vintage. "I think it's very relatable. It's really great if people can experience their own humanity through the work."
Bond approached the show with a level of caution, knowing that "typically 300 people audition for a season, of which there might be two Asian actors" -- and the show's cast calls for 21 actors from the Asian community. But the response was supportive, and people continued to emerge. "They would come to me saying, 'I hear you're doing this, do you have something for me?' This particular piece is so rich and such a great vehicle for their heritage that they continued to flock to it," he notes.
Things came together in the nick of time after a brief postponement to allow the Vintage to relocate from its old Vine Street location to a new home at 1468 Dayton Street in Aurora, an inviting, modern space formerly occupied by Shadow Theatre that Vintage now owns. The show, which opened last weekend, will be running Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday afternoons at 2:30 through May 20 (fittingly, one showing falls on Mother's Day, May 13). Tickets are $20 in advance or for students and $25 at the door. For more information or to purchase tickets, go to the Vintage Theatre website.