At the marrow of Amy Tan’s novel, “The Bonesetter’s Daughter,” is a story about the fraught eddies of communication between mothers and daughters. This is the theme Desdemona Chiang, playwright of Book-It Repertory Theatre’s stage adaptation of the work, strove to inflect into the coming production of “The Bonesetter’s Daughter,” running June 8-July 3.
“Throughout the adaptation, we were trying to dive into what someone’s origin story is, and what that journey is to find out where they come from,” said Chiang.
In “The Bonesetter’s Daughter,” this discovery takes place in the gestures or written words of mothers. Chiang connects these storytelling modes to the “paper trails of ancestry that often get lost. What is the process of excavating your past, and your lineage, and what is the legacy you have?”
As if in answer to the question, Chiang rotates the play around the focal point of Ruth, daughter of LuLing. Scenes establish Ruth as deep in the midst of deciphering a set of letters, written by her mother in Chinese calligraphy and addressed to Ruth as an exposé to her ancestral past.
Chiang worked with director Rosa Joshi to visually capture the interior journey of Ruth’s paper-trail revelation. “The set is a simple, elegant series of panels with calligraphy spilling out through projections,” Chiang says. While designing on-set swoops of light and shadow, Joshi and Chiang thought to immerse audiences within the pictorial forms of Chinese characters — and the spirit of LuLing’s letters.
Another cipher of mother-daughter communication that Chiang had to consider was the dialogue of LuLing and her own mother-figure, Precious Auntie. Precious Auntie is a character who speaks only gesturally, after her mouth was mangled in a grisly incident that renders her speechless. Only the young LuLing understands Precious Auntie’s unique language: hands that express stories through movement and form.
Part of adapting this highly personal, nonverbal language for stage included finding ways to represent gestural meaning while not appropriating deaf culture, shares Chiang. “We also did not want to conflate — Precious Auntie is hearing but she cannot speak. Whereas American Sign Language and Chinese Sign Language are used by people who are deaf, represent their own cultures, and require study and practice,” Chiang says. The cast and crew received support from a consultant who specializes in visual gestural language, meant for hearing people who do not speak, to create Precious Auntie’s expression.
In one of the novel’s pivotal moments, LuLing decides to ignore her maternal caregiver, casting aside Precious Auntie’s gestures as meaningless, and therefore erasing the legitimacy of her personhood. Precious Auntie, devastated, leaves a sheath of papers for her daughter to read, explicating the sorrowful and somber truth of their generational legacy.
From this seed sprouts a cycle. As the torch is passed, it is the daughter who carries forth — and hears, above all — the voice of her mother. From one character to the next, passing from hand to hand, is the ancestral trail itself, creased into the tongues, palms and papers of women who cannot forget.