By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
Starting June 11, Book-It Repertory Theatre will take Amy Tan’s 2001 novel, “The Bonesetter’s Daughter,” from the page to the stage.
The show, adapted by Desdemona Chiang and directed by Rosa Joshi, will be the world premiere of Tan’s familial epic, featuring an all-female and nonbinary, Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) cast, playwright, and director. The production will run through July 3 at Center Theatre in Seattle Center’s Armory.
“The Bonesetter’s Daughter” tells the story of Ruth, a Chinese American woman who learns details about her mother’s childhood by reading her diary. According to a news release, the show is set against multiple historical backdrops, including both modern Sino-Japanese wars, and delves into the “heart of family, taking an unflinching look at the often-complicated relationship between mothers and daughters.”
“It’s a fascinating book,” Joshi said about their source material.
The complicated mother-daughter relationship
At the beginning of her partnering with Book-It, Chiang said they initially wanted to adapt “The Joy Luck Club,” Tan’s best-known novel, but they couldn’t get the rights to it. This led to a deep reading into all of Tan’s books, before Chiang settled on “The Bonesetter’s Daughter.”
“There was something beautifully epic about that novel,” she said, adding that she found the nesting doll-like structure of the story—of a daughter reading her mother’s diary, and the mother reading her mother’s diary—very vivid and compelling. Chiang also noted that the story includes four generations of one family, evoking ancestors and touching on something ancient. The deeper they go, the more mythological things get.
This was Chiang’s first time adapting a piece for the stage and with Tan’s novel coming in at 400 pages, and the audiobook being nearly 12 hours, cuts had to be made to the story. In the end, Chiang—who works primarily as a theater director—focused on the relationship between Ruth and LuLing, and the former discovering the latter’s origin story.
For Joshi, whose most recent works have consisted of Shakespeare and other classical plays, exploring that mother-daughter relationship felt familiar to her as an immigrant and daughter of an immigrant herself.
“This work feels closer to my experience,” she said. “I have an Asian mother who’s in her 80s.”
Like Ruth, Joshi has had the realization that her mother had an entire life before she was born. While this is something many people experience, Joshi said it’s especially poignant when your parent’s other life was in another country (in Joshi’s case, Nepal).
“Mothers and daughters have a really hard time communicating,” she said, adding that there’s also something specific about Asian mothers and daughters that adds another layer to the relationships. “We hold things in.”
The play had Joshi thinking about her own mother, what she knows about her, and what she will never know. It also has her wishing her daughters were in town so they could see “The Bonesetter’s Daughter.”
“If you have a mother you can go with, if you have a daughter you can go with,” Joshi said in regards to who she recommends people bring to the show. “And even if you don’t, the idea of knowing ourselves through the stories of our parents [helps us] know more about ourselves.”
A pause for the pandemic
It had been a goal for Book-It—a nonprofit founded in 1990 with the mission to transform great literature into great theater, and to inspire audiences to read—to bring “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” to the stage since 2020. But like live productions everywhere, the pandemic had other ideas. In 2021, they began talking again about making the show a reality and Chiang began writing in the fall. Casting took place at the beginning of this year.
“The Bonesetter’s Daughter” is Joshi’s first full, in-person production since the pandemic.
“It’s very exciting, kind of like riding a bike,” she said about being back in the theater. She admits that with the pandemic, the gears on the bike in question are different and some of the rules of the road have changed.
In the news release, Book-It managing director Jeannine Clarke said they didn’t want to just let the show go, choosing to wait because it was an important story from an important author. In addition, she said, with Seattle’s rich AAPI community, they knew there was “incredible writing, directing, and acting talent that was available to tell this story.”
“Well, good things come to those who wait, and here we are, two and a half years later, bringing this story to the stage, with an incredible all female and nonbinary AAPI cast, director, and playwright,” Clarke said in the release. “I couldn’t be more thrilled.”
Universality through specificity
Although she got her start in the local theater scene in the late 1990s at the Northwest Asian American Theatre, “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” is the first Asian American show and all-AAPI cast (who are playing the male and very few non-Asian roles as well) Joshi has directed.
“I love it, I’ve just never had the experience before,” she said, adding that through her theater company, upstart crow collective, she has worked with all-female and nonbinary casts.
Joshi said for a long time, the idea of universality in stories has come from white culture. But when that universality—in this case, the relationship between mothers and daughters—comes from a non-dominant culture, it creates a more inclusive space for people whose stories are not always centered. It helps them feel seen.
Chiang added that when it comes to universality, the key is specificity and she’s curious to see how audiences will respond and relate to the mother-daughter relationship in “The Bonesetter’s Daughter.” Because the show unlocks more than “Chinese-ness,” she said, it’s about our parents’ survival stories and what they went through to get us here.
A powerful, all-AAPI moment on stage
Throughout rehearsals, the cast talked about their mothers and their own personal experiences. Joshi said it was amazing to see the diversity among different Asian cultures, but there were still certain things they could all relate to with each other, which created a shorthand around the culture.
This being said, they couldn’t just make assumptions and Joshi still had to learn a lot about Chinese culture. They had lots of research to do to ensure things were accurate. She added that she was grateful to have Chiang, who was born and spent the first few years of her life in Taiwan, as the playwright as well as a cultural consultant.
As a director, Chiang has had the opposite experience of Joshi’s—having worked with AAPI casts but not an all-female and nonbinary cast. And for Chiang, seeing the show’s full company of eight AAPI women and nonbinary actors on stage for the first time was something to behold.
“That’s a powerful moment,” she said. “This is amazing.”
Tickets and COVID guidelines
Performances of “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” are Wednesday through Sunday and single tickets are on sale now. Ticket prices range from $33-$50. In addition, tickets for students—of all ages—are $20 with a valid student ID. Groups of eight or more tickets are eligible for a 10% discount. To purchase tickets, visit book-it.org or call (206) 216-0833. The box office is open from noon to 5 p.m., Tuesdays through Fridays.
Masks are required for show attendees, as well as proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test. There will be no separate sections for vaccinated and unvaccinated patrons.
Samantha can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.