For those who haven’t read Amy Tan’s 1989 book The Joy Luck Club or seen the 1993 movie, the East West Players have brought Susan Kim’s sensitive stage adaptation to the David Henry Hwang Theatre in Little Tokyo.
The story is about four Chinese-American immigrant families. The mothers, all of whom emigrated from mainland China, formed a mahjong club called "The Joy Luck Club."
Suyuan Woo (Cici Lau), who formed the original Joy Luck Club while married to a Chinese military officer, fled her home as the Japanese invaded China, losing her twin daughters on the way when she was near death. With her first husband dead, and unable to locate her children, she comes to America and marries. Her death, before the opening of the play, brings her daughter, Jing-Mei (Elaine Kao), into the mahjong club as her “aunties” encourage her to fill her mother’s seat.
The other three mothers are An-Mei Hsu (Emily Kuroda), whose mother committed suicide so that An-Mei could have a better life, Lindo Jong (Karen Huie), who cleverly escaped a dismal first marriage, and Betty St. Clair (Deborah Png), who tragically leaves her adulterous and abusive husband after killing their child and falls into a marriage with a Caucasian American man.
Their daughters are haunted by the things their mothers did or did not do. Betty’s daughter Lena (Katherine Lee) is married to a controlling man, reacting passively as Betty had done. Rose (Jennifer Chang) is also passive, unlike her mother, An-Mei, who found her voice when her own mother committed suicide. Waverly (Celeste Den) wants to please her mother, but as a child resented her mother always showing off her accomplishments.
The book and movie were both criticized for their negative portrayals of Asian and Asian-American men, but some of the Asian men do come off in a positive light. This is most definitely a play about mothers and daughters and the bridges they need to build and cross in order to understand each other and become whole. Because everyone does have a mother, I wouldn’t consider the play the theatrical equivalent of a chick flick.