By Momar G. Visaya
NEW YORK – The new production of The Joy Luck Club, a play by Susan Kim adapted from the acclaimed novel by Amy Tan, started its previews this week, with three Fil-Am theater actresses in the main cast delivering stellar performances.
Tina Chilip and Sacha Bayot Iskra play Waverly Jong and Lena St. Clair, respectively, while veteran thespian Lydia Gaston essays the role of Ying Ying, Lena’s mother.
Both Chilip and Iskra, who both worked really hard for their roles, are making their Pan Asian Rep debuts. Both actors recently talked with the Asian Journal to share their thoughts on, among others, Asian American roles and how they landed their parts at The Joy Luck Club.
“I actually auditioned for the role of Jing Mei but the producers thought that I fit Waverly’s role,” Chilip said.
A union actor, Iskra went to the Actors Equity Association and found out about the open call for auditions. “It was kind of intimidating but I went. I got to go in a total of three times,” Iskra told the Asian Journal.
Set in San Francisco in the 80’s, The Joy Luck Club follows four Mahjong playing mothers from different provinces in China and their relationships with their American born daughters. This re-envisioning captures the historical sweep and operatic grandeur of feudal China and the dynamic pulse of modern America.
“Transcending nationality, culture and age barriers, The Joy Luck Club may be the most successful Asian-American fiction of the last quarter-century. It’s an Asian American classic and we would like to introduce it to the new generation of artists and audiences,” said Tisa Chang, who is directing the new production.
The film brought Tan’s story into the consciousness of millions and Susan Kim’s adaptation has brought Tan’s characters to life for audiences in both China and America. Pan Asian Rep mounted its New York premiere eight years ago.
Susan Kim’s adaptation had its world premiere in 1993 in a joint venture between Shanghai People’s Art Theatre and The Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut. Performed in a Mandarin translation, the production launched in Shanghai before playing Hong Kong.
Chang directed the 1999 New York premiere at Pan Asian Repertory Theatre and the production proved popular with critics and audiences that it was extended to a sustained off-Broadway run at the Julia Miles Theatre, where the new production will also be playing.
“I have a pretty strong personality and I can be very competitive. She is more like an exaggerated version of me. I don’t have the same relationship that she has with her mom. I am very close to my mom. Waverly is a little bit more snide and competitive,” Chilip said, when asked about her similarities with the role she plays.
Iskra, on the other hand said that it is the respect and awe that her character Lena St. Clair for her mother, along with cherishing the importance of her mother’s opinion and her influence on her life’s choices, as some of the traits she shares with the character she plays.
Born and raised in the Philippines, Chilip moved to the U.S. when she was 19 as a transfer college student. “My mom didn’t want me to come here, she wanted me to just continue my studies at the Ateneo. She thought about it for a year and eventually she agreed,” Chilip shared.
“I’ve always enjoyed watching plays as a kid. I never thought acting would be a career, I thought it was just a hobby and I cannot make a career out of it,” she added.
Iskra, now married to a “wonderful husband” (of Polish descent), was born in the U.S. but her parents made sure that she went to the Philippines very frequently and with that, she became proficient in Tagalog.
Iskra’s father’s family is from Amadeo, Cavite while her mother’s family is from Pagsanjan, Laguna. “I’m so excited to visit them again next year because a cousin is getting married,” she said.
Back at the Ateneo, Chilip took up Business Management Honors, and she continued her interest in business when she took up and finished commerce at Santa Clara University. In between, she was yearning to act. Eventually, her passion in acting pushed her to enroll in a Masters in Fine Arts degree at Brown University, where she graduated in 2005.
“I was a very, very shy kid and I would hide every time we had visitors. Surprisingly, I have met a lot of other actors who are also very shy and acting is a way of expressing themselves, almost,” Chilip recalled.
Iskra recalled her fascination with acting started when she was 5, but her mother didn not take it seriously until she was in college. She considers Lea Salonga as a major influence in her passion to pursue a career in theater.
She has performed in various musicals such as Miss Saigon, where she played Kim, Evita, Ragtime and Pocahontas. Iskra is also into dance, staged readings and plays.
Asked where she is most comfortable with, she replied, “I would say it has to be musical theater but if the story is well-built and the story is well-written and you have a wonderful director and a great cast to work with, it almost doesn’t matter what discipline it is. The job is to tell the story and tell it beautifully.”
Chilip is hopeful as more roles for Asian American actors are becoming more available.
“I think it is changing more and more as we see more diverse casting going on onstage. I think part of it is just not to limit yourself because when the number of roles is limited, I shouldn’t put that on my head. You have to be brave enough,” she said.
“The situation is getting better,” echoed Iskra, “I believe we are making great strides. It’s still hard but it’s getting better.”
Growing up in the theatre scene, Chilip acknowledges the fact that there aren’t many Asian American role models out there. Asked for her advice to Asian American youth who are finding inclination in theater, she offered three tips.
“Training is very important. I am so grateful to have had that training at Brown. It just didn’t boost my confidence but I also gained a network where I can learn from. Being grounded is also important, like having a support group of family and friends. You need some other thing to support you financially. I have a day job and they are very wonderful to me and let me be flexible with my time so I can do acting,” she shared.
Founded in 1977, Pan Asian Rep is the premier producer of Asian American theatre with New York season international and national touring and residencies. For 30 years, Pan Asian Rep has celebrated the artistic expressiveness of Asian and American theatre artists with the highest standards of professional theatre.
The company encourages production of new plays with contemporary Asian American themes, explores new forms by drawing upon the unique heritage of Asian American style, music and movement and nurtures emerging Asian American talent. Under the direction of Tisa Chang, Pan Asian Rep continues to bring Asian American Theatre to the general theatre-going public and deepen their appreciation and understanding of the Asian American cultural heritage. (AJ)
(The Joy Luck Club runs October 28th – November 25th at the Julia Miles Theatre (424 W. 55th Street between 9th & 10th Aves). Via Subway, take the 1/A/C/B/D trains to Columbus Circle or the C/E to 50th Street/8th Ave. **Performances are Tuesday – Saturday at 7:30PM with matinees on Sunday at 3:00PM. Tickets are $50. Senior tickets are $35. Student tickets are $20. For tickets, call Telecharge.com (212) 239-6200. Discounted rates available for groups of 15 or more are available by calling 212-868-4030.)