Watch Bulrusher below written and directed by Eisa Davis through September 20, starring Edmund Donovan, Sydney Elisabeth, André Holland, Tanis Parenteau, Corey Stoll. Kara Young
It feels like a folktale: In a small town called Boonville, whose townsfolk have their own language, an outcast named Bulrusher, who was abandoned as an infant in a basket in the local river, can tell anybody’s future by reading the water they’ve touched.
As she explains it: “I was supposed to die but I didn’t, so I suppose I got an open ticket to the land of could be.”
But Boonville is an actual town in Northern California where the residents do speak a dialect of more than a thousand words and phrases of their own devising. And if Bulrusher the foundling has a mystical ability to foretell the future, “Bulrusher” the play is rooted in the past. Set in 1955, Eisa Davis’s play is threaded through with the racism, sexism, homophobia, economic decline and violence of the period, and the shame and self-hate that they produce. All six characters are affected in one way or another, from the black logger who can’t find work to the Madame of a whorehouse who can’t choose love to Bulrusher herself, who has figured out that at least one of her parents is Black, but doesn’t know who they are.
“Bulrusher” was first staged at Urban Stages in 2006 and, as Paula Vogel explains in the beginning of the video, the Pulitzer nominating committee on which she served recommended it for the Drama Prize. It seems inevitable, then, that Vogel would select it as the latest Zoom reading in her Bard at the Gate series.
It was not inevitable that I would enjoy watching a two and a half hour Zoom play. But I did enjoy it. Some of it’s the original songs. Part of it is Davis’ effort to avoid a conventional reading. Here, there is an effort to stage the fist-fight, the kiss, the love scene in the script, even though everybody is in their separate Zoom cell; the stagecraft is half artful, half awkward, but preferred to having a stage manager simply read the stage directions. Mostly the enjoyment comes, despite the unhappy context and some grim revelations, from the great warmth and a surprising amount of humor in the interactions between the characters. This is thanks largely to a superb cast.
Kara Young, who was so adorable as the lead in C.A. Johnson’s “All the Natalie Portmans,” and so fierce as the street urchin in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “Halfway Bitches,” is both fierce and adorable as the 18-year-old Bulrusher when she faces off with a boy she’s known since childhood, portrayed by Edmund Donovan, another excellent actor (Lewiston/Clarkson, Greater Clements) When they were growing up, he watched while classmates teased and tortured her, laughing along with them. But now he starts to flirt with her, in his own ham-handed way.
“You ain’t never talked to me before,” she says.
“No one talk to you ’cause all you got is hard truth for people. If you was nice and not cocked
darley all the time, you might have you a pal.”
“Don’t need no pal. Got me the river.”
“Well, I like being stuck on someone, I don’t care how unnatural you are.”
“Let’s make this our first and last conversation.”
“You’re gonna be my new girlfriend.“
The push-pull of their relationship continues throughout the play even after Bulrusher becomes instantly entranced with Vera (Sydney Elisabeth), who arrives from Birmingham, Alabama to stay with her uncle Lucas (André Holland), a former logger (there’s no logging industry anymore, so he has to do odd jobs), who is the only other Black person in the area. Bulrusher has never met another Black woman before, and is amazed at her tales of segregation. But, it soon becomes clear, her interest in her is not just educational.
Lucas has his own push-pull relationship with the Madame of the local whorehouse (Tanis Parenteau), competing for her affections with Schoolch (Corey Stoll), the nearly silent schoolteacher who took Bulrusher in and has raised her. The six characters turn out to be intimately connected to one another in ways that, in lesser hands, might have come off as too pat. But we’re more ready to accept the turns and twists because of the appealing ensemble acting by these star players.