In a way, she's been working on the play all her life.
From the day her parents landed in China to adopt her, to the stares directed at her family as she grew, to present-day conversations where strangers ask where she's from and refuse to accept "Philadelphia" as an answer.
On Saturday, the playwright and director Sarah Mitteldorf brings the new Many Ways to the stage of the Asian Arts Initiative in Center City. It is one of the first serious works by a Chinese adoptee to examine the Chinese adoption experience.
"I don't think anything ends here. We're just scratching the surface," said Mitteldorf, 27, interviewed between rehearsals and production meetings. "That's been an unexpected but really lovely discovery."
For most of the last year, Mitteldorf has led a group of five adopted girls, ages 9 to 12, in talking out experiences and ideas, writing dialogue in a borrowed classroom at a Jeffersonville church. They've produced a play that shifts between landscapes, moving from spoken word to more traditional structures of scenes and story.
What's the play about? Only the important stuff: Race. Family. Love. Friendship.
It's about finding your place in two countries, two cultures, and one family. About growing up in a house where nobody looks like you - and about the people who created you living unknown and anonymous across the sea.
Mitteldorf, of Mount Airy, last year directed Nobody But Somebody at the Strawberry One-Act Festival in New York, where she was nominated for best director. She cowrote and directed two recent works in the Philly Fringe Festival, Eurydice in Market East and Spill.
Her idea for Many Ways sparked at a screening of Wo Ai Ni Mommy, which translates to I Love You Mommy, an adoption documentary. The discussion afterward was dominated by professionals and parents. Mitteldorf wondered: Where were the voices of adoptees themselves?
She came to the United States as a baby in 1986, a feat accomplished through the resolve of her parents and help from a Chinese friend. That was five years before China changed its laws to allow foreign adoption and a decade before the country started sending large numbers of children here.
In China, the one-child policy generally limits families to one offspring, and sons are preferred culturally.
Harsh penalties for having "extra children" result in the secret abandonment of baby girls. Most of the more than 81,000 adopted children here were swept into state-run orphanages, then taken to homes in largely white families.
Since the earliest days, researchers and parents have wondered what the girls would make of their own beginnings, and how that experience would emerge in sculpture, painting, and music.
Mitteldorf and her charges offer the beginnings of one answer, even though their personal experience differs in some ways.
Mitteldorf went first - and largely alone, through high school and college, through a country that didn't know quite what to make of her. Her cowriter students, like others adopted since the late 1990s, grew up knowing other adoptees and getting support from groups such as Families With Children From China.
Mitteldorf said she and her mother and father, attorney Alice Ballard and educator Josh Mitteldorf, talk openly about how her distinct personal history was addressed within their family as she grew up.
"Sometimes something might fail to be acknowledged because my parents wanted me to happy and healthy and not insecure - which is a wonderful thing to want for your child," she said. "But at times it could be difficult for there to be space for these things."
Hovering like ghosts are the two people on the other side of the world who gave life to Mitteldorf.
"I'm still learning how to think about that," she said. "A lot of times, it doesn't matter to me at all. At other times, it really does matter."
She'll be thinking about it for probably the next five years - or maybe the rest of her life. She expects Many Ways to develop similarly, a work that could change as time goes forward.
"I'm really interested in coming back to this piece, maybe next year," she said. "I think there are some really interesting things going on in the play that I did not expect."