Arts Listings

The Theater: Berkeley Native Eisa Davis Returns Home

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Tuesday November 21, 2006

Eisa Davis—actor, playwright, singer and songwriter—has returned to her hometown, performing at Berkeley Rep as The Mother in rock singer Stew’s play, Passing Strange. Her own play, Bulrushers, about a visitor from Montgomery, Ala., to the Mendocino County town of Boonville on the eve of the Civil Rights Movement, will be produced next year by the Shotgun Players. 

“I was born at Alta Bates; I’m a native all the way to the ground,” said Davis, talking about her early influences, which led her to performing and writing in New York. “My parents and grandparents believed in a well-rounded education, and understood the importance of the arts. Not that the arts were a way to get you better at math, but to help you to understand other people, that creativity leads to compassion.” 

Davis recalled how her mother would play music “at the crack of dawn—jazz, salsa, African music,” and the love of both literature and live performance she received from both mother and grandmother. She studied classical piano, with some lessons in jazz from an accompanist of Pharoah Sanders, a friend of her mother’s. 

Her start in “seeing and being a part of plays” came with student-run productions at Berkeley High, learning “an expanded idea of what theater could be, as well as the value of plays outside the classroom, helping to understand life ... I was in a little playwrights’ circle, and had friends who weren’t theater people, but were interested. Peers influenced me.” 

She also credits the UC Young Musicians’ program, which “gave us everything, from the bus tickets to get there to a chorus for everybody to sing in. And everybody sang and played piano. There was emphasis on rhythm and composition. Some of the Berkeley High Jazz Band members were there with us. There was a weekly concert to perform—then afterwards, we swam.” 

Yet Davis wasn’t stagestruck.  

“I didn’t think of it as a career,” she said, “But when I got to college, I’d sing and play just to write my own songs. I at least wanted to try.”  

Though performing had been something she’d done “since I was 6, in little livingroom shows,” she didn’t start “acting in earnest” until grad school. In the meantime, Davis had worked at LA’s Mark Taper Forum, in particular with playwright and solo performer Anna Devere Smith, and interviewed artists for a hip-hop magazine.  

The big step to a career awaited her back east, where she attended Harvard and enrolled in The Actors Studio at The New School in New York. 

“West and East Coast cultures are so different!” she said, “And New York is its own place.”  

Davis credits the “idealism and excitement over what we could accomplish--could we alter theater?” as the spur for cofounding a theater company with classmates, “an offshoot of school,” which eventually “crashed and burned, as companies can do easily.” 

Still, working with “the personalities, politics and aesthetics--and learning from failures” in a group context enabled her to “take ideals into the New York scene, the industry at large,” where she’s forged a journeyman career in theater, film and TV. 

“I still think the best way to create theater is with an ensemble,” she said. 

She performs with a vibrant ensemble in Passing Strange, gracefully a standout in the most grounded role in the play. 

“Everybody’s so gifted,” she said. “We all look forward to going onstage, not knowing what will happen! I’m even singing offstage at one point We’re as wild and satirical as Stew lets us be. Our input is heard as it goes along. After we’re done here, it’s back into rehearsal, then the run at the Public Theater in New York. We’ve created the kind of ensemble I’ve dreamed of working in.” 

The more personal side of her career, writing plays and performing her own dramatic and musical material, has brought her back to Berkeley as well, with her autobiographical solo show Angela’s Mixtape at La Pena last year, another appearance there a month back with a band—and next year’s production of Bulrushers by Shotgun. 

“I grew up around the corner from where the Ashby Stage is now,” Davis said. “I’m excited my old neighborhood’s the subject of Love is a Dream House in Lorin. Marcus Gardley, the playwright, is from Oakland and a colleague at New Dramatists, and Aaron Davidman, the director, I saw him play Mack The Knife with Traveling Jewish Theatre. Shotgun’s produced other colleagues of mine, too, like Adam Bock and Liz Duffy Adams.” 

Davis is also the niece of author and activist Angela Davis, the namesake for her solo show.  

“She’d make mixtapes for me of the music I heard at her house, especially vocal jazz,” she said. “In the biggest way, she influenced me as an artist. She’s the one in my family who discovered Mendocino, so she helped create Bulrushers. Her book on blues, of how cultural production had an impact on society and the way we conceive of ourselves and each other really affected me. 

“Angela and my mother have been involved in Civil Rights, my mother as an attorney, now fighting academic and corporate discrimination,” Davis continued. “I’ve had to ask myself what I wanted to do with my life; is being an artist selfish? But I’ve realized the work I’m doing comes from experiencing others, creating characters people haven’t seen, telling stories that allow us to conceive of ourselves differently. My inspiration comes from their bravery and consistancy of principle in ending oppression—and we do that in whatever arena we’re in.” 



Eisa Davis, with Daniel Breaker, in Passing Strange, a musical now making its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre before heading to New York City. Photograph by Kevin Berne.