“Why do you live where they do this to colored people?” asks 18-year-old Bulrusher, who grew up one of two black people in pastoral yet progressive Boonville, California. It’s the summer of 1955, and Vera, who’s just off a train from Birmingham, has shown her new friend a magazine photo of Emmett Till’s mutilated face.
“’Cause we’re tired of running,” Vera replies.
Eisa Davis’ Bulrusher, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, was first produced almost a decade ago. But with most of the country riveted by Ferguson, Missouri, where an unarmed black teenager recently was shot and killed by a police officer, this exchange could not feel timelier or more chilling.
Much of the action in Bulrusher takes place in a brothel, to give an idea of the town’s liberal mentality. So libertarian is Boonville in its mindset, in fact, that it has its own language, Boontling. “Bulrusher,” for instance, means foundling. The play’s protagonist and title character (Bianca Lemaire) was discovered in a woven basket caught in riverbank weeds and subsequently reared by Schoolch, the village’s white, often mute schoolteacher (Warren Davis). In addition to sticking out because of her race, Bulrusher feels further isolated by being clairvoyant.
Until Vera (an outstanding Chauntae Pink) shows up. A black girl from the Deep South who appears with a splash (literally — Bulrusher spots her running in the midst of the summer’s only downpour), Vera becomes fast friends with Bulrusher. With Vera's arrival, though, the impending social and political turmoil of the outside world seeps into Bulrusher.
Davis is in love with language. Here, even with the frequently clumsy addition of Boontling’s alien tongue, she can make it sing. Logger (Joshua Wolf Coleman) describes Bulrusher and Vera as “two redwood saplings”; Bulrusher likens orange sections to “pieces of the heart torn from the spine.”
However, in Davis’ attempt to speak on a multitude of topics — the psychology of abandonment, sexual awakening, the fight-or-flight response, mounting racial tension in the country — Bulrusher begins to bloat. You get the feeling she realized this, and thus everything, including Vera's disturbing predicament, gets wrapped up quickly and a bit too neatly.
Wisely, director Nataki Garrett keeps the action simple, allowing the very talented Hana S. Kim’s subtle video designs and Derrick McDaniel’s ethereal lighting to complement, not complicate, the already chock-full play. Unfortunately, some chemistry misfires, notably between Boy (a little too loosey-goosey Patrick Thomas Cragin) and Bulrusher. And on opening night, Lemaire had a tendency to heavily indicate, widening her eyes and deepening her dimples in the first act to an almost cartoonish effect, especially noticeable in scenes with the more nuanced Pink. Hopefully she'll settle into the role.
Despite its flaws, Bulrusher is a reminder that while more than half a century has passed, race relations have remained strained even six decades later. Bulrusher reads fortunes. If she were alive today, would she foretell black men still being brutalized, their blood still running in the streets, 60 years from now?
Skylight Theatre Company and Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble, 1816 1/2 N. Vermont, Los Feliz; through Sept. 28. (213) 761-7061. skylighttix.com.
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