There are some evocative, lyrical scenes in “Bulrusher,” Eisa Davis’s beautiful coming-of-age story of life in 1955 in the remote yet storied Northern California town of Booneville. That’s the settlement in Anderson Valley where the citizens speak Boontling, a dying dialect of more than 1,000 words. The program contains a glossary of Boontling words.
Yet, despite its poetics, “Bulrusher” is a bit jumbled because it is pulling in too many directions at once — it’s a folktale, an exploration of race in the mid-1950s, treatment of native Americans, a Tennessee Williams-ish account of a town full of secrets, a view of sexual (and homosexual) awakening, belonging and genuine love, as well as a touch of logging industry economics. The jumbling diminishes but does not destroy what is an expressive and emotional work of art.
Bulrusher, excellently and sympathetically portrayed by Jordan Tyson, is an 18-year-old girl who was found as an infant floating in a basket on the nearby Navarro River. Perhaps because of her early relationship with water, she can tell one’s fortune by reading the water they have touched.
The character, Bulrusher, is an odd combination of naiveite and age-old wisdom, who knows she is at least partly Black because of her appearance. But aside from Logger (Jeorge Bennett Watson), she had never met another Black person (sneeble, in Boontling) until Logger’s niece Vera (Cyndii Johnson) comes to town from Birmingham, Alabama. And suddenly, Bulrusher is being courted by the guitar-playing Boy (Rob Kellogg), who used to make fun of her.
Bulrusher has been brought up by Schoolch (schoolteacher in Boontling), a silent, buttoned-up teacher (Jamie LaVerdiere) who hangs out at the local whorehouse, but never uses the services of the madges (prostitutes in Boontling). Its hard-hearted Madame (Shyla Lefner) keeps threatening to leave Booneville but never does. Perhaps something unspoken is keeping her in town. The story’s climax comes off as a bit heavy-handed as secrets are revealed too late to undo the damage they have caused.
Berkeley Rep is co-producing “Bulrusher” with McCarter Theatre Center at Princeton University. The first-rate cast, skilled director Nicole A. Watson, and imaginative scenic designer Lawrence E. Moten III ironed out whatever wrinkles there were during the New Jersey run earlier this year. The creative and effective set features running water and varying video projections (Katherine Freer) that mirror the shifting days and weather.
Playwright and Berkeley native Eisa Davis’s talents are exemplified by her varied career, which includes writing, music, and acting. She has performed as a singer-songwriter and appeared in film and TV, including “The Wire,” “House of Cards,” and “Succession.” Davis is the niece of activist and author Angela Davis.
“Bulrusher” first premiered in New York in 2006 to mixed reviews, But after the play was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, it received a well-earned second look. Here in Berkeley, the Shotgun Players produced “Bulrusher” in 2007. And now, Oakland’s West Edge Opera https://www.westedgeopera.org/ is presenting a world premiere production next year, written by Nathaniel Stookey and Eisa Davis.
“Bulrusher” runs through December 3, 2023, at Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. It is approximately two hours and 45 minutes long, including one intermission. Masks are encouraged but optional for performances from Wednesday through Saturday. Mask-wearing is required in the theatre on all Sundays (matinees and evenings) and Tuesdays. Post-show discussions and closed captioning are available at specific performances. Tickets $22.50–$134, subject to change, can be purchased online at www.berkeleyrep.org/shows/bulrusher/ or by phone at 510.647.2949.
This article was first published in Berkeleyside.
By Emily S. Mendel
© Emily S. Mendel 2023 All Rights Reserved