Jordan Tyson. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

Bulrusher

Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Written by:
Toba Singer
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From the shoals of the woke formulary, set in rural Boon against a forest primeval (Lawrence E. Moten III), Eisa Davis’ Bulrusher confects the tale of a social conundrum that the title character (Jordan Tyson) embodies. Bulrusher is an 18-year-old counter-phobic young woman who interprets clients’ fortunes by inducing them to put their hands under water. Of a mixed heritage, from which she surfaces as Black, she deflects probes into her racial provenance with serial declarations of independence from shop-worn assumptions that others lean on. They wait, and not always patiently, for Bulrusher to commit to a life more recognizable in their world than her penchant for fortune-telling gives quarter to. They are: Madame (Shyla Lefner), who, with a vigilant eye on house rules and balanced books, runs the house of prostitution where the story unfolds; Boy (Rob Kellogg), who leads with his sense of entitlement to make a life with the reluctant Bulrusher; Schoolch (Brennan Pickman-Thoon), the schoolteacher who adopted Bulrusher when she was an infant found floating like Moses in the rushes; Logger (Jeorge Bennett watson), a perennial customer of Madame’s who hears wedding bells whenever Madame enters a room, and Vera (Cyndii Johnson), Logger’s cousin who arrives in bold relief from afar, with no clear motivation for her trip—business or pleasure?

Davis has given us tenderly drawn characters. They fit amiably into the rural setting of Boon, which lays claim to Boontling, a lexicon of its own, detailed in a glossary on a dedicated page in the program. The exception is Vera, who comes from Alabama to find her Logger cousin. She doesn’t fit in at all, which Bulrusher finds tantalizing, because despite Bulrusher’s babbling brook fixation, and sleights-of-hand brand, neither does she.

The actors are deft at finding their characters’ intentions in backstories that lead to the present state of affairs. There are moments where they hint at the shape-shifting comic elements in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Some of the word volleys are difficult to parse, either because of deficits in diction or the venue’s acoustics. As it enters its third hour, rushing to tie up dangling participles, the script dissolves into a showcase for poetic “telling” that floods the banks of a more manicured showing.

Toba Singer

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