Mothers and Daughters, a Conversation With Desdemona Chiang and Rosa Joshi on “The Bonesetter’s Daughter”

Playwright Desdemona Chiang. Photo by Steve Korn

This is a story of mothers and daughters. Based on Amy Tan’s fourth novel, The Bonesetter’s Daughter deals with the relationship between an American-born Chinese woman and her immigrant mother. It is a chronicle of war and revenge, joy and connection, and profound familial love.

We recently chatted with the playwright, Desdemona Chiang, who adapted it for Book-It Repertory Theatre’s stage, and Rosa Joshi, the production’s director. They discussed mothers and daughter dynamics, representation, and getting feedback from Amy Tan.

Desdemona Chiang: Hi, Rosa.

Rosa Joshi: How are you? How’s it going?

DC: Good. Good. Actually, let me just talk shop. I owe you a final copy of the script. Are you working off the Google Doc? We can talk offline about that. I just realized I should get you a script.

RJ: Yeah, if you want to just…Are you done?

DC: Yeah. I was just going to get you something official so you can officially send to the design team.

RJ: That is so exciting. Congratulations.

DC: Thank you. Sorry, Jonathan. We just totally side barred for a second, but we’re both here.

Jonathan Shipley: This is excellent. I am just curious as to what initially drew you to the story?

DC: This is a conversation that actually happened several years ago, back when Jane Jones and Myra Platt were running Book-It. And they had come to me in 2019. They were interested in doing an Amy Tan novel. The Joy Luck Club was the initial thought but then we couldn’t get the rights to it. They were interested in pursuing a novel of one of hers. We kicked around several options and it was between Kitchen God’s Wife or Bonesetter’s Daughter. And, ultimately, it came down to this piece because of the scope of the story. I was really interested in the fact that it was an intergenerational story, and it spans a wider breadth of cultures than the other books. So the size of the story and the themes are really important to me.

RJ: It’s a story about mothers and daughters intergenerationally. I’ve always been fascinated by that. And it’s rarely often that I get to work on that kind of story because I do so much Shakespeare and classical work. This is so personal in terms [of], “Ok, I have an Asian mother.” This is something that I can actually relate to very immediately and personally and I don’t have to go so far in my imagination.

JS: Your relationships with your mothers. Did they inform your thought process in regard to working on this piece? Did your thoughts of motherhood or family dynamics at all change?

DC: It’s interesting, I actually feel like my mom is not at all like the mothers of this story. I’m an only child, so in some ways I feel a deep kinship with Ruth, the protagonist, as someone who’s like looking into the future, like a crystal ball of sorts. “What’s going to happen with my mom when she gets older?” I definitely feel this idea of a single mom and a single daughter is something that feels very real for me. I had a single mom, and so it was the two of us my entire life. That’s something that I feel really attached to in this play.

RJ: And my situation is nothing like the situation in the book, but I feel kind of jealous that Ruth gets to know as much about her mom’s past as she does, because I don’t think I’ll ever get to know as much about my mom’s past. I do feel like now it’s maybe too late because my mom doesn’t really remember or want to talk about it as much. I get snippets here and there. I’ve only caught glimpses of the life she’s led and what she’s been through. And that, I think, is also fascinating to me in this story: how Lu Ling appears to the world and the life that she’s actually led.

We’re doing this with eight actors. We decided to make them all women and non-binary people, because that’s the kind of work that I also do. That actually was Desdemona’s idea. Then, as we were going along, we decided that it would be an all-Asian cast.

Rosa Joshi

JS: In regard to what initially drew you to the story, what inspired you to actually take it on? This question is mostly for you, Desdemona, about what made you actually put the pen to the paper?

DC: Book-It approached me about the adaptation and I was fortunate that they were kind enough to let me choose the story. I’m actually a director in the theatre field. That’s where the bulk of my work has been, so moving into this new area of writing is kind of exciting for me. I really didn’t even start writing until the pandemic but now that I’ve started doing it, I like playwriting. And adapting, I feel, is a soft way of entering into the world of writing plays, because you’re not accountable for the story. You just have to start thinking about dramatic structure and that’s a lot of what I did anyway as a director. It’s a new door that’s opening for me creatively that I’m really excited to pursue.

RJ: And she’s really good at it.

DC: That makes two of us. You’re very kind.

RJ: No, it’s true. And for me, it was the opportunity to work with Desdemona on this story. For me it’s very much the opportunity to work with an artist that I admire and respect so much and enjoy personally so much.

DC: It feels great to be thinking about a play and be working on a story and not be directing it and not be attached to directing choices. I loved your work so much, Rosa, and I feel so confident putting the story in your hands.

RJ: Thank you.

JS: You mentioned taking something from page to life. What challenges are there as a writer and/or director in creating a piece that just lives on a piece of paper? I mean, obviously there’s challenges, but also the joy. What parts do you leave out? What to leave in?

DC: Yeah. The novel covers so much…I mean, there are entire lines of drama that just are not in this play. We’re only getting about 15% of the novel in the script. The first thing I wanted to do was really hone in on what the story of the play was going to be and through what lens. And once it became clear that this was going to be a story about Ruth unpacking the part of her mother that she never knew. Right? This is a character who’s always known the depressed, grumpy, caustic mother. I never knew the daring, adventurous, risk-taking, bright person that she was when she was younger. And so, to Joshi’s point earlier about never knowing that side of her mom and her having an entire life you never knew about, I wanted that to be the lens of this play. And so, once it became about that, then cutting was kind of easy.

I mean, it was kind of comforting to know that this was Amy’s story that I’m drawing inspiration from, and there’s clever rearranging that I do, but I felt like that gave me permission to, “Okay, if I wanted to depart there and take a little dramatic license,” I could. The only tricky caveat with this is that Amy Tan has to approve this draft before it goes into direction.

JS: You just mentioned Amy Tan having input on your story. Is she planning to attend?

DC: I don’t know. That’s a question for the Book-It folks. They put me in touch with her and her agent and so I’ve been getting some feedback. I haven’t had a chance to synchronously connect with Amy one on one, but her agent has been very generous with feedback.

JS: You also mentioned telling your own story through the lens of the novel. I was wondering what theatre can bring to a story that the novel cannot.

RJ: We’re doing this with eight actors. We decided to make them all women and non-binary people, because that’s the kind of work that I also do. That actually was Desdemona’s idea. Then, as we were going along, we decided that it would be an all-Asian cast. Those choices then affect the lens with which you see the play. What the production can do is help you see it through a very specific lens that is theatrical; that makes you have to imagine these eight people as everyone. And, so, this then informs who the story belongs to.

JS: That leads up to my next question. With your all-Asian all-woman cast, was that a conscious decision on your part to make sure that happened from the start, or was it just a subconscious thought that just happened?

DC: The decision to make it all-women and non-binary, it wasn’t a political thing I was trying to do. Of course I think it’s always important to widen the scope of representation and make sure folks we don’t see play roles. I’m not big on the politics of casting. I cast the shows the way I see it. But in this situation, one of the reasons why I was curious about an all-female cast, was because it was such a mother-daughter heavy story.

RJ: These decisions come out of the art that we are making. They come out of, “What’s the best way to tell this story?”.

JS: The art, the story, is more important than the politicizing of it.

DC: Yes.

…if I can get someone in the audience to leave the lobby and want to call their mom or their daughter or their grandma or a sister after the show, that’s what I would love to happen.

Desdemona Chiang

JS: What are the themes or lessons that you want to impart with the show? What are you hoping audiences take away from the production?

DC: Usually when I work on a piece of theatre, I do have some kind of agenda. And by “agenda” I mean, “What can I get the audience to do, feel, understand about their world and their lives?” And, if anything, if I can get someone in the audience to leave the lobby and want to call their mom or their daughter or their grandma or a sister after the show, that’s what I would love to happen.

RJ: Oh, that’s beautiful.

DC: I think “I want to call my mom afterward” is a good agenda to have, especially for a play that’s, in this case, so culturally specific. I feel like universality is achieved through specificity. I go see August Wilson plays. I’m not a Black person but I can go see that play and be like, “Dude, I understand that family dynamic. I understand the love, the anger, the whatever, that is in the play.” If you have women in your lives, if you have a sister or mother or a daughter or a grandmother, you can call them afterward.

RJ: And to tag on to that, it’s this idea that you might want to know that person better. That you might want to think that whatever mystery is there that you might want to discover.

The interview has been edited for clarity.

The Bonesetter’s Daughter will play at Book-It Repertory Theatre June 8–July 3, 2022. Tickets are available online.

Jonathan Shipley is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, National Parks Magazine, and Oh Reader!, among other publications.