The title character of Berkeley native Eisa Davis’ Pulitzer Prize-nominated play Bulrusher, as produced by the Shotgun Players at the Ashby Stage, says, “I guess I can tell everybody else’s future because I don’t know my own past ... didn’t die like I was supposed to, so I’ve got a one-way ticket to the Land of Could Be.”
She tells of her special provenance: abandoned as an infant, discovered floating in a basket among cat-tails in the Navarro River (thus, Bulrusher, like Moses—but also “foundling, illegitimate child” in Boontling, the old backdoor lingo of Boonville in Mendocino County), she’s carved out a niche for herself, first as a clairvoyant who “reads the water,” then as a fruit peddler, plying oranges and bananas, the only “piece of cut cabbage” (Boontling for black woman) in town.
But another, like her in race and gender, though from another world, arrives alone from Birmingham, Ala.—and upsets the apple cart, both for lonely Bulrusher and for the other denizens of Anderson Valley and the webwork of secret kinships left unspoken in Bootling as well as plain English.
Eisa Davis, who commented that her play was “a feat of the imagination,” has created a Romance—with a capital R—which, like The Scarlet Letter, uses the romances between characters in an idyllic setting to mirror their personal secrets, which in turn reflect, upside-down, the image of the greater world, outside and far away, with all its tribulation and strife—in particular, questions of race, family and identity, all being defined and redefined in the courts, schools and streets of the America of 1955, when the play is set.
It opens on Lisa Clark’s great set of plank floors for cabins and town buildings rising out of the river waters, interlaced with reeds and overhung by big trees, with Bulrusher (Kirya Traber, a spoken word artist and Mendocino native) in an emerald dress, catching the drip from the branches in her skirt and tossing it back up in a shaft of light, then talking to the river, her “diary, church, everything,” and the redwoods overhead, rhapsodizing in words derived from a song Davis wrote: “Forgiveness is an insect that may one day draw my blood ... I am born into a new language.”
Then an odd trio, a kind of triangle, is introduced under a milk glass chandelier hanging from an arch become a tree trunk, in the parlor of the town’s cathouse: Madame (Louise Chegwidden—“Not a businesswoman like Mary Magdalene!”) banters with two men, also named only by occupation—silent Schoolch (Terry Lamb), former teacher and (at first) mute straightman with a china cup and saucer and laconic glance and gestures, and the loquacious Logger (D. Anthony Harper), Boonville’s only black man, who stayed on when the sawmills gave way to orchards (which in turn have given way to the present sprawl of vineyards). “This woman’s an art-i-san!” says the Logger of Madame.
The Logger found Bulrusher floating in her basket; Schoolch brought her up. And now she’s being pursued by Boy (Cole Smith), who declares her his girlfriend in sanguine flights of amorous oratory directed at her. (Madame, Logger and Boy in particular speak in the lapidary diction, peppered with Boontling argot, that give Bulrusher much of its lyrical, even rhapsodic, quality.)
Then enter Vera (Jahmela Biggs), on foot from the nearest Greyhound stop, arriving “on the day of the only rain of the summer.” (“It’s pearlin’ out there!” exclaims Madame in Boontling.) She and Bulrusher are amazed at each other. “You never seen another colored girl before?”—“No,” Bulrusher admits, “I had to drink a beer to get over you!”
Vera, like Odysseus walking inland with an oar over his shoulder, seems both shocked and glad Bulrusher doesn’t know the real score of race in America. But Vera has her own reasons for fleeing to Boonville; the Logger is her uncle, and Vera’s stunned: “I never thought I’d see a town full of crackers let a buck in their bordello!” The Logger sets her straight: “Indians, they’re the colored folk here now—and they got it bad, so don’t you go saying you’re part Cherokee!”
The Logger takes her in, braids her sopping hair, recites Paul Laurence Dunbar poems, talks about “tongue and groovin’ my own cabin” and ironically laments, “All the trees are gone, and so is my youth. I got nothin’ to destroy.”
There are many images and vignettes: Bulrusher in gumboots with a kerchief on her head, holding a highgun (shotgun); Logger cutting in on Schootch to dance with Madame at the Apple Show dance, while Boy finally holds Bulrusher, at least for a slow number, after he calls a square dance. And Bulrusher goes on a quest to meet her penitent mother; the Romance becomes a family romance.
A family romance in a small town with its own jargon, tucked away in a valley of redwoods, while the wheels of change grind in the greater world outside—and everything goes round and round in Boonville ... so much, Bulrusher says, “Wait till I tell the river!”
Ellen Sebastian Chang and Margot Hall have directed their well-cast company with both sensitivity and alacrity. The characters are crystal-clear, assisted by Valera Cobble’s costuming, and the three Equity actors (Chegwidden, Harper and Lamb) anchor the show solidly with their wry triangle. Jarrod Fischer’s lighting captures the liquid light and shadow of the north coast. Berkeley composer Clark Suprynowicz designed the sound and led a ten-player ensemble, playing bass and washboard himself, to record the superlative incidental music, wonderful motifs that shade the edges of theatrical tableaux.
Bulrusher is a quiet triumph—for Shotgun, who show how they’re advancing a kind of housestyle of production—and for Eisa Davis, who commented, “I discovered what my themes are as a writer, what archetypes populate my landscape.” One of the themes is stated by the title archetype, Bulrusher the outcast: “Don’t judge people by what never happened!”
Presented at 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday by the Shotgun Players through Oct. 28 at the Asbhy Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave. $17-$25.