|Allyson Lee Brown and Ayo Tushinda in Bulrusher (Naomi Ishisaka)|
(at Jones Playhouse)
Through September 14, 2019
Eisa Davis’ play, Bulrusher, presented by Intiman Theatre and directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton, is steeped - like black tea - in atmosphere. Infused with music and poetic dialogue, there is a measured pace, enough time to consider things. Set in a northern California townlet, Boonville, everyone there knows everyone else and most of the folks in the small nearby towns as well.
Boonville even has its own language, Boontling, that is a real dialect they all made up together in the 1800s. But you don’t really have to “harp the lingo” to understand what’s being said when they use those terms. It’s pretty clear what anyone is saying.
The play’s main subject area is race and how the town handles it. Boonville, as set in the mid-1950s, apparently was not nearly as segregated as much of the rest of the United States. Black residents did not have to use a back door and could buy things at local establishments. The play’s namesake and main character is a mixed race 18 year old girl who didn’t know she was “black” until she was 5, says Logger (Reginal Andre Jackson), when he told her she was.
Bulrusher (Ayo Tushinde) lives with Schoolch (Charles Leggett) who raised her after she was found in a basket on the river as a baby. Boonville also apparently has no issues with a white, unmarried schoolteacher raising a baby alone, much less a mixed-race baby.
Much of the play takes place around a brothel that both Schoolch and Logger seem to visit on a daily basis in order to spend time with the Madame (Christine Pilar). Both men appear to wish more personal relationships with her while she seems to want to be left alone. Madame does not treat Bulrusher with much respect or kindness, either.
Bulrusher is a character full of “atmosphere” and magic. She talks to the River and it tells her what the weather will be like up to a week away. She has an ability to touch someone else’s “water” – their drink, their sweat, their saliva – and to then tell aspects of their futures or other personal information. Schoolch made her swear off doing that, though, when others called her a witch and made fun of her. He was protective of her treatment.
There is one young man in town who will talk to Bulrusher. He’s named Boy (Adam Fontana), but he’s the child of whatever privilege is in town and a popular one with the girls. After years of not caring about her, he’s suddenly decided to have her be his girlfriend. But a complication arrives in town: a black teen named Vera (Allyson Lee Brown) whose uncle is Logger. Vera helps Bulrusher learn much, much more about the racism in the rest of the country and how Boonville is quite different.
Tushinde is in almost every scene and pulls the play along with her considerable charm and energy. Other castmates do a fine job, as well. One cast member does have less experience in a key role, but it is clear by the end of the play why the company chose the inclusion. This highlights the difficult balance between serving the intent of the playwright and script versus serving the best interests of the real-time actor and audience experience.
The set, by Jennifer Zeyl, is full of rustic wood that can handle getting actually wet, and is deceptively simple, with a bunch of secret hidey=holes that hold props and in one lovely opening, a real “pond” that the actors can jump into. But some of Curtis-Newton’s required fussing with wooden boxes being moved (to little effect) slows the pace of the show.
The twist at the end feels a bit oddly tacked on. The whole play leads to that twist, but once revealed, the playwright immediately lets go of exploring any of its ramifications. In fact, after that it seems like nothing much changes.
At two and a half hours, the play is a bit too lengthy, so bring your patience. It has good intentions, is based on a real town with real history which might be of interest to some, and highlights an interesting subject area. There is some great music provided by sound designer Matt Starritt that also enhances that atmosphere.
For more information, go to www.intiman.org or call 206-315-5838. Tickets are available at no charge by walk-up prior to each performance.