'Bulrusher' Playwright Eisa Davis Talks Ferguson and Race

Ed Krieger

"Are we in Gaza or are we in Missouri? It’s hard to tell," says the writer, whose play set during the Civil Rights era gets its first L.A. production

While it’s not an autobiographical play, Eisa Davis’ Pulitzer finalist, Bulrusher, frequently draws from her own experience summering in rural Northern California and extended visits with relatives in Birmingham, Ala. Davis also grew up steeped in the culture of radical politics and the lore of the Black Power movement -- her full given name is Angela Eisa Davis, named for her famed aunt, political activist Angela Davis.

Bulrusher -- whose L.A. debut runs through Sept. 28 at East Hollywood's Skylight Theatre -- centers on a clairvoyant orphan girl, Bulrushe (Bianca Lemaire) living in the isolated redwood country north of San Francisco, 1955, where, following the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, the early stirrings of the Civil Rights movement 2,200 miles away in Mississippi barely register. One of the town’s only African-Americans, Bulrusher, who is under the care of a taciturn school teacher, has her sense of identity shaken when another African-American girl, Vera (Chaunte Pink), arrives from Alabama.

While times have changed since 1955, Davis -- after seeing the play fresh in L.A. -- says many of the problems still remain. “We experience racial inequality and structural discrimination,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter. “You’re still, as a person of color, left with this sense of a lack of self worth. You can’t celebrate what’s different about you cause you’re supposed to fit into this whiteness that’s uniformity, and of course that carries its own violence."

With the recent shooting of an unarmed black teen in Ferguson, Mo., in the news, Davis bemoans "the racial poison" that still exists in the U.S.: “It feels like are we in Gaza or are we in Missouri? It’s hard to tell. We’re all just trying to come to terms with these terrifying, literally terrorist structures that we’ve perhaps built out of ignorance and fear and then they just boomerang back around, and people are not having it.”

Such rhetoric comes easy to Davis who grew up under the tutelage of her mother and her aunt, a leader of the Communist Party USA in the 1970s, and an associate of the Black Panther Party. Now 70 years old, Angela Davis is a lecturer and author of several books and, according to Davis, was approached in the nineties by the FBI who hoped to recruit her.

“I didn’t grow up knowing her whole story,” confesses Davis, who remembers kids at school telling her that her aunt had cool cred. “Then one day I went to Angela and I was just like everyone talks about you. Who are you? And she’s just like, Eisa, just read the book [her 1974 autobiography].”

Despite recent events in Ferguson and the police shooting of 25-year-old Kajieme Powell several days later in St. Louis, as well as the police shooting earlier this month of Ezell Ford, a mentally handicapped man in Los Angeles, Davis -- who in addition to a playwright is an actress whose appeared on such shows as Hart of Dixie and The Wire -- remains optimistic about race relations.

“Even though there’s a lot of pain and longing we’re left with, there’s also so much hope,” she says. “So that’s something that has kind of been sustaining for me in Bulrusher and a big part of why I wrote it – the possibility for love and forgiveness and joy, even amongst all of this pain.”