By shining a much-needed spotlight on the lives of Asian-American women in 1987 San Francisco, “The Joy Luck Club” became an unlikely literary sensation when it was released in 1990. Going beyond best-selling book status to become an acclaimed film in 1994 as well, “Club” is now coming to life through Oct. 5 on the stage of the Sierra Madre Playhouse.
Following a quartet of Chinese women who meet regularly at their Joy Luck Club to play mahjong and socialize, the group is shaken when its founder passes away, and her American-born daughter is invited to join the group. As the complex relationships unfold, the play moves from China in the early 20th century and San Francisco from the 1950s to the 1980s, as the eight women struggle across a seemingly unpassable chasm of culture, generation and expectations to find strength and happiness.
“I worked with them last year on their Theater for Youth field series, directing the short play ‘Nothing is the Same,’” says Tim Dang, director of the current “Joy” production. “That was about four 11-year-olds who were affected by Pearl Harbor while living in Hawaii at that time.
“The Playhouse’s artistic director Christian Lebano invited me to direct this, because it has a mission of portraying the American experience on stage,” adds Dang. “‘Joy Luck Club’ is about the immigrant Chinese experience, and played directly into their mission. The surrounding communities of Pasadena, Arcadia, Alhambra and Montebello, and across the San Gabriel Valley that have Asian-American communities could be reached out to for the first time. LA County is so huge, with over 4,000 square miles, that to find a show to attend in your own neighborhood is a great thing.”
Dang notes that the live production of “Joy” has many challenges, particularly because the cast is extremely large by the Playhouse’s standards. The cast is composed of 13 actors playing on a stage that normally holds five to seven performers, and the fact that the play has up to 60 characters means even those actors have to perform an average of four roles apiece.
Add in flashbacks to China and flash-forwards to San Francisco and the production needed to raise additional funds far surpassing the normal SMP budget levels. A series of intimate house parties with Playhouse patrons and members of the Chinese-American community raised almost $35,000, which was used to pay for additional cast members, costumes and production value.
“Directing this play was like playing Tetris, because I would draw figures on a mock drawing of the set so I would know where all the actors go at any one moment of the scene or the play happening,” says Dang. “Only three scenes of the play have all 13 actors on stage, while otherwise there are maybe eight actors in a given scene. So we had to strategically choreograph them, with little spike marks on the floor so actors know where to go, little pieces of glow tape so they know where to step. It was pretty precise in terms of the staging.”
With all the effort already paying off in a hit opening week, Dang is optimistic that the Asian acting community is here to stay and continues to grow ever-bigger.
“The film of ‘Joy’ came out 25 years ago and was probably the first major Asian film to actually have critical and popular success back in 1994,” says Dang. “[The ABC sitcom] ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ is very popular and gaining traction for more popular fare. Disney, Hulu, Amazon thirst for content, and with that is much more openness for the entertainment industry for different kinds of stories with so many rich stories there.
“There has to be leadership at the top and there are more producers and directors seeking out this kind of content on many different levels, whether film, TV or stage,” he concludes. “Pasadena Playhouse’s next play ‘The Great Leap’ is Asian-themed. Hopefully this will continue with more diverse fare. Hopefully there’s more thirst for opportunity.”
“The Joy Luck Club” runs through Oct. 5 at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre. Tickets are $25 to $45. Call (626) 355-4318 or visit sierramadreplayhouse.org.