nytheatre.com review by Gregg Bellon
March 10, 2006
Race, identity, and the search for self fill the narratives of American theatre to abundance. Eisa Davis’s Bulrusher takes as its paradigm the story of Moses, or at least the part where Moses is sent down the river in a basket only days after birth by his mother. This baby, named Bulrusher by her adoptive parent for the bulrush weeds that line the river where she was caught before being found, finds divine providence during her time in the river—so much so that she’s possessed with an ability to read “people’s water,” i.e., their futures when making contact with them through water. More of a poetic than a biblical effigy, Bulrusher brims with profound lyrical passion on the page, it seems; but the production staged by Leah C. Gardiner for Urban Stages fails to support this, with static and recessed blocking that seems to be filtered as through the glass walls of an aquarium.
It’s 1955, just after the Emmett Till murder, in a small town in Northern California, a place seemingly untouched by the racial strife of the burgeoning civil rights reform movement. Bulrusher, our seer (the charismatic and talented Zabryna Guevara), is a mixed breed, albeit an unaware one who identifies herself as an outsider not because of her race/skin color but because of her ability to “read the water,” the fortune telling she’s ridiculed and condemned for by the townspeople. Schoolch, the aforementioned parent (the stoic Peter Bradbury) and schoolteacher, cares for her as if she were his own, educating her with formal academics and practical self-sufficiency.
The town, Boonville, in the Anderson Valley of Mendocino County, north of San Francisco, is a lost place, a logging town whose loggers have been displaced by industrialization. The only thing for the Logger (the robust Guiseppe Jones), the “colored” lumberjack, to do is hang out at the brothel run by Madame (the feisty Charlotte Colavin), who insists on the French pronunciation—“don’t you dare call her Madam.” And so it is for Bulrusher, Schoolch, even Boy (the outmatched Robert Bietzel), Bulrusher’s former bully and current courtier, and presumably many others not seen on this stage: black, white, it’s all the same at Madame’s as long as you’re paying. The mundaneness of it all gives this place and time a serenity that befits its rural rustic setting, a bubble bursting with secrets and silences ready for popping. This needle is personified by the arrival of Vera, (the vibrant Tinashe Kajese) the niece of Logger, from Birmingham, the messenger of another reality of black-white relations, and a catalyst for Bulrusher’s awakening. It’s a stormy evening the night Vera arrives, the night she’s picked up by Bulrusher while hitchhiking, the night Bulrusher first looks into the mirror. And thankfully so, because this is when finally the story begins to move and find momentum.
Bulrusher takes Vera under her wing, reuniting her with her uncle, making her a partner in her orange and lemon stand, and in the process unraveling a metaphysical link between the two that manifests itself in sexual awakening. Anyone who’s experienced the epiphany of true love, the sensation of transcending that emotion for the first time, will sympathize with the girls, and immediately you root for them. You hope that in spite of the reality of what we know 1955 race relations to be that this fusion of souls perseveres, both for the awakening of the characters and for the hope of all mankind. If this all sounds a bit hyperbolic and melodramatic, I’ll admit it’s in the style of the writing, which utilizes the tension of emotional inner conflict to build to a climactic confrontation. Their bonds, we as audience are all well-aware, goes deeper than the lesbian love through which they manifest them. These are real “sistahs” whose interconnectedness threatens those around them. Vera shows Bulrusher the face of “colored”-ness in the U.S. and brings out a fury in her that drives her to want to cast out the part of her that is her mother. Not even Schoolch, who normally can affect her to stand down with merely a look, can control Bulrusher’s impulse to avenge her water-borne abandonment when her mother contacts her and asks to meet her.
This climax is best left to be experienced in person, but unfortunately, the night I saw it, the finale had none of the passion and combustibility to which the writing was building. The unraveling of one web inevitably leads to the unraveling of all others around. This inertia foments great storms of emotion and catharsis, a tornado taking everything with it. I saw little of this action on stage. There is great power in stillness and silence; acting doesn’t require speaking. But mere stasis and silence are not enough if they're not imbued with action. I don’t know whether this was a directorial choice or just exhaustion and mis-timing from the actors. At more than two hours, the entire piece could use some trimming and some pacing. And we all know that new plays in independent theater have little time to build momentum in front of an audience before they’re already closed. And Davis has presented a challenge to the director and the actors, a lyrical poetic play with much nuance that requires precision and commitment. Finding that rhythm is the key for any production. In spite of any shortcomings, Bulrusher has the potential to achieve that flow and satisfy its author’s beat.