'Bulrusher': Theater Review

Bulrusher Still - H 2014
Ed Krieger

Bulrusher Still - H 2014

A scintillating if sentimental play of ideas

A mixed race teen experiences sexual and political awakening in this Pulitzer Prize finalist set in 1955 rural California

1955 was the summer of tortured teen James Dean in East of Eden and the real-life tortured and murdered youth Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi. Back then, the eponymous heroine of Eisa DavisBulrusher (played by a remarkable Bianca Lemaire) leads a hardscrabble yet idyllic rural existence around the village of Boonville, California, a little more than 100 miles north of San Francisco.

In its relative isolation, Booneville has evolved its own colorful "language," Boontling, spoken exclusively by the locals for more than a century. While it employs no distinct grammar, it does boast a hick hipster argot of private shared phrases such as “flag’s out” for menstruation, “dehigged” for cashless, or “scottied” for hungry. (Its lexicographer was a recurring guest of Johnny Carson.) The jargon seems forbidding in the extensive glossary provided in the program, yet its easy intimacy grows readily infectious as it spices the dialogue for this accomplished play, which tackles familiar coming-of-age themes with freshness of vision and a poetic sparkle.

While Booneville may be a real town and Boontling actually spoken, for all the harshness of its inhabitants' lives onstage, the place is conjured here in an imaginative fancy comparable to Glocca Morra, Brigadoon or Grover’s Corners. The perilously archetypal characters congregate primarily at what appears to be the classiest brothel in Mendocino County, represented only by the hard-nosed but generous Madame (Heidi James). Bulrusher, abandoned by her mother and reputedly discovered floating in a basket in the tall grasses downriver, has been raised by the creepily introverted schoolteacher dubbed "Schoolch" (Warren Davis}, who nurses an unrequited crush on Madame.

Racial attitudes in this sanctuary of a hamlet are fantastically (if instructively) portrayed contrary to period. Bulrusher is rarely identified by her skin color, although she is the only such child thereabouts, until the unexpected arrival from Birmingham of fugitive Negro teenager Vera (Chauntae Pink), the niece of odd-jobsman Logger (the ever excellent Joshua Wolf Coleman).

Multiple Obie-winning actor Davis (Passing Strange) evokes the urgency of emerging civil rights consciousness through the experience of the coltish, clairvoyant Bulrusher in her encounter with Vera’s emissary from the darker world beyond. With considerable gracefulness, Davis conflates Bulrusher’s social and political awakening with her blossoming, heartachingly naive, sexual attraction to Vera, despite the guilelessly persistent attentions of a local "Boy" (Patrick Cragin).

Bulrusher flirts dangerously with an overload of rhapsodic lyricism, along with its determinedly artificial premises and much-trodden plotlines. Still, its originality elicits many striking insights, affording a new expressive depth to old ideas of protest and liberation that can usefully be refreshed for contemporary sensibilities. Davis’ voice, while not merely novel, registers clearly. The playwright conveys with some welcome complexity the power of many variants of intimacy, with their contending and complementary strands of anger and desire, rebellion and love.

Despite the somewhat formulaic conception of characters, Davis imbues everyone with tangy idiosyncracies. And the well-calibrated direction of Nataki Garrett (who staged the superb, chance-taking Matrix Theater production of Neighbors), allows all the actors ample chance to establish credible specificity. 

Lemaire is especially incandescent, displaying an Audrey Hepburn-like luminosity over a nearly feral core. She takes some daring chances with theatrical facial gestures and mannerisms that effectively wring out the expectations of realism from her characterization, scaling her performance large and indelible.

James continues an exceptional streak of vivid portrayals this year after her memorable turn in Bright Light City at the Los Angeles Theater Center. Pink, confronted with some hairpin turns in attitude, keeps her balance by tapping Vera’s unstable trauma, while Coleman once again lays claim to becoming the next generation’s Glynn Turman with his eloquent, grounded stillness.

Bulrusher was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2007 but lost out to David Linsday-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole, which was certainly more intently focused in theme and polished in its dramaturgy  — and not coincidentally, far easier to mount.

However, Davis’ achievement seems more innovative and stimulating, as formidably original as the far more universally acclaimed work of brother playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose The Brothers Size nears the end of its hit run at the Fountain Theater while his Choir Boy opens at the end of the month at the Geffen Playhouse. Bulrusher, with its contrasting female perspective, makes an equally recommendable companion piece.

Cast: Bianca Lemaire, Joshua Wolf Coleman, Heidi James, Chauntae Pink, Warren Davis, Patrick Cragin

Director: Nataki Garrett

Playwright: Eisa Davis

Set and video designer: Hana S. Kim

Lighting designer: Derrick McDaniel

Costume designer: Naila Aladdin Sanders

Sound designer: David B. Marling

Music: Patrick Cragin

Presented by Skylight Theatre Company, Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble