"Bulrusher", by Eisa Davis {theatre review}

[Michal Daniel, 2008]

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Bulrusher, by Eisa Davis
reviewed by David Grant

(The Liberator Magazine) Pillsbury House Theatre is like "The Little Engine That Could." Or maybe a more appropriate story analogy for this little gem of a theater is "The Mouse That Roared." Like the larger, much better known Penumbra Theater of St. Paul, Pillsbury House has a modest home base in a venerable old community center. And like Penumbra, it has become a powerhouse home for brilliant world-class theater. Over the years of their tenure, co-artistic producing director Faye Price, and co-artistic managing director Noel Raymond (and before them founding artistic director Ralph Remington) have pulled off many minor miracles and a number of major coups in terms of what they've managed to present on that little stage. Pillsbury House Theatre's recent production of Eisa Davis' Bulrusher is arguably their most impressive ever.

The team of Faye Price and Noel Raymond is immensely gifted, and they can always be counted on to stage one of the more challenging and interesting seasons of any theater in town, but they outdid themselves this time by successfully snaring the rights to a play by rapidly-rising theater artist Eisa Davis that was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize, and then, just as impressive, by convincing the stellar Marion McClinton to come home to the Twin Cities to direct it. The young, talented Lauren Ignaut from the Guthrie literary department did the dramaturgy.

Eisa Davis, niece to legendary firebrand and freedom fighter Angela Davis, is a woman of many parts -- a Harvard grad whose interests and rich talents have led to parallel careers as a musician and songwriter/ composer, actress and playwright, and activist. She is currently starring on the Broadway stage in the Tony-awarded "Passing Strange," and she has recently released a CD of her original music called, "Something Else." Her play Bulrusher became one of last year's Pulitzer Prize finalists in a year when giants like Edward Albee and August Wilson didn't make the cut. Because Pillsbury House Theatre somehow managed to snatch up the rights to this play for their season, Twin Cities audiences are among a very small group of nationwide theater-goers lucky enough to see the play this year.

Questions of both personal and collective identity are core issues at the heart of African American literature, and that's the deep well from which Davis' play comes. But Davis' is definitely not a story we've heard before. Bulrusher's title character is an African American woman of mixed heritage who's got some uniquely major identity issues with which to contend. The fact that she was born "colored" in the waning days of the depression, in the midst of an overwhelmingly white and isolated rural town in California, would make the task of developing a strong, coherent identity hard enough for anyone. But add into the mix the fact that she was found floating in a basket down the river that flows through town, and has never had a clue about the identity of her parents, and you've got someone with a very interesting identity challenge indeed. And Bulrusher's challenge doesn't stop there. As the play opens, it's 1955. The unpopular war in Korea grinds on, liberation struggles among the world's colonized masses are heating up, and at home, America's own "colored" are growing restless and beginning to rise up too. The civil rights movement is taking shape and building momentum toward an historic showdown with institutional racism in America.

But Bulrusher and the placid, rural, mostly white community around her, live far from the center of the fray. Their little valley is so isolated from the rest of the world that what's happening in Selma, Ala. seems just as far removed from their daily reality as what's happening in Seoul, Korea. Bulrusher has grown up with no idea whatsoever what it means to be a person of color in America. In fact, at age twenty, it's only been a couple of years since Bulrusher even discovered that she is "colored." In the world she knows, she's always been an outsider not due to the darker hue of her skin but because 1) neither she nor anyone around seems to know who her people are or where she's from; 2) her mystical relationship with the river has given her the ability to "read" people and to see clairvoyantly both their past and their future with uncanny accuracy. All someone needs to do is dip their hand in water; then Bulrusher puts her hand in that same water and "reads" it.

But as the action of the play begins in the parlor of a local whore house, Schoolch, the white teacher who took her in and raised her from infancy, has just asked her to stop doing this. This ability to "read" water is just one aspect of Bulrusher's relationship with the river. She talks to the river and confides in the river as she bathes in its waters. It's the only "mother" she's ever known. Scoolch now wants to pull her away from the river and toward a normal life in the real world. But there'd be no play if Eisa Davis weren't planning at this very moment on turning that "real world" completely upside down.

As soon as Bulrusher agrees to stop reading folks' water, the "real world" comes calling on her with a vengeance. She's never held a boy's hand; never been kissed. But now a young man she's known all her life decides to pursue her aggressively and win her hand in marriage. And no sooner has that uncomfortable dance begun than an African American refugee from the deep south comes to town in search of a long-lost uncle she believes is living here. When Bulrusher falls for the young stranger, this triggers a wild chain of events which completely blows her world apart. Suddenly, her relationships with the principle people in her life: with her suitor; with Schoolch; with the whore house Madam, and with the logger who is her long-time paramour; with the young visitor from down south with whom she falls in love -- with the river, and with herself -- will never be the same again.

That's a lot of dramatic material for a playwright to heap up onto the loom of her imagination and work with, but somehow, Davis pulls it off, deftly weaving a magical story from the stuff of all these diverse personalities and story threads she has placed into motion.

One of the most striking things about the play that hits a theater-goer immediately is the power and sometimes, the strangeness of the language. Part of playwright Davis' attraction to this particular town in this particular region of California is that, isolated in the remote reaches of their mountainous home, sometime during the late 19th century, the residents of Booneville (Boonts) made up their own language, lovingly referred to as "Boontling." "The language … was primarily devised," says Davis, "to discuss taboo subjects and keep outsiders out. But Boontling also functioned to document town history, create unexpected value from the strange, and satisfy the residents' overriding love of inventive talk." Hmmm …

One of the principal criticisms of much of the work created by African American playwrights in recent years is that the language is too much the star of the show, to the extent that it distracts from the dramatic action that should be driving the story forward -- that the language is "too poetic." August Wilson and Suzan-Lori Parks, among others, are slammed for this, and now, Eisa Davis will be as well. But just as Wilson and Parks were never the least bit apologetic for this aspect of their storytelling style, Davis will be a proud standard bearer for the tradition too. When our ancestors were dragged here as slaves and they took away our mother tongue(s), we put this country on notice right away: "Y'all stand back, now. We f'in to do some real interesting stuff with y'all's language." And we have. And, primarily through hip-hop and spoken word, that tradition of bending and shaping the language to make it our own continues today.

The play is a celebration of that tradition. And it's also, in many ways, a celebration of the American myth of how the frontier allows people the freedom to create or re-create themselves in whatever ways make sense to them in the moment. Some will criticize this play for pushing the increasingly popular idea that we are now living in a "post-racial" America. But is Davis' play really saying that's where we are? It may seem so at first blush, but the answer is "no." All she's really saying is that identity is complicated, and fluid -- that self-definition is the first step to self-determination. As long as you're the one defining who and what you are, you're on a journey that expands your universe. It's when others do the defining -- including other black folks, that you find your possibilities and your universe constricted. At one pivotal moment in the play, when she realizes the opportunity which circumstances have just laid at her feet, Bulrusher exclaims, with emotion, that she feels like she's got, "An open ticket to the land of "could be." And as she bravely grabs that ticket and rides it for all it's worth, she pulls us along with her on an unforgettable ride.

Christiana Clark as Bulrusher delivered an exquisite, nuanced performance in a highly challenging role. The venerable James Williams -- one of Penumbra Theater's founding members -- Sonja Parks, Jodi A. Kellogg, Marc Rosenwinkel, and John Catron rounded out a very strong supporting cast.

Whenever you find yourself in the mood for an evening of theater, place Pillsbury House somewhere in the Big Three list of theaters you always check first. They're a little theater on a mission. That mission is big and it’s ambitious -- but this is a theater with the big heart and the big talent required to serve that mission well.

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