There is an obvious biblical allusion in the title character’s name in Eisa Davis’ “Bulrusher,” which is currently being presented at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton.
Her unknown mother, she tells another character in the play, “sent me down the Navarro River but someone found me in the weeds. The bulrushes.”
“Like Moses,” it is observed.
“No,” Bulrusher responds. “Like me.”
Why go through the trouble to set up a biblical parallel, only to deflate it? I don’t know. But it’s just one of Davis’ many quirky touches in the play, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2007.
A bigger one: Davis sets the action in Boonville, California, a real town, north of San Francisco, that has developed a dialect of its own. Davis’ characters sometimes speak in it, and though the theater helpfully provides a glossary of 55 words and terms in the program, I’m not sure that the folksy character that the words add to the play offsets the frustration of making a viewer try to decipher lines such as “Listen, booker tee, ain’t no call for that sorta nonch harpin’. You can step right out and get your Fourth of Jeel jollies rubbin’ up against some tree.”
Davis’ tone is sometimes poetic and sometimes coarsely humorous — and also, sometimes mythical and sometimes socially conscious — as she sketches memorable portraits of the oddballs living in this town. Bulrusher (Jordan Tyson) is an earnest and likeable young lady who makes her living selling oranges, and has the power to see the future. She fends off the advances of a buffoonish character known only as Boy (Rob Kellogg) and falls heads-over-heels in love (or as she says, she “gets that turpentine feeling under my skin”) when Vera (Cyndii Johnson) arrives in town from Alabama.
It is the summer of 1955, and though there is no racial tension to speak of among this play’s uniformly friendly white and Black characters, Vera tells Bulrusher about the Civil Rights struggle going on elsewhere, and informs her about what has just happened, horrifically, to Emmett Till.
Vera is the niece of Logger (Jeorge Bennett Watson), a logger who hangs out at a brothel owned by the hard-edged, business-minded madam, known as Madam (Shyla Lefner). Joining him as a regular there is Schoolch, who is as taciturn and detached as Logger (who announces, “I feel poetical all of the time”) is loquacious and outgoing.
Schoolch is a schoolteacher (“schoolch” is Boonville lingo for schoolteacher) who never indulges in the brothel’s unseen prostitutes, waiting upstairs; he just sits downstairs with Madam and, sometimes, Logger, drinking tea and reading a newspaper.
Schoolch adopted Bulrusher all those years ago, when she was found in the bulrushes, and is in love with Madam, who used to be romantically involved with Logger. Madam is not all that interested in either potential suitor, as she is focused on the upcoming sale of her brothel, which she thinks will, improbably, make her a rich woman. (I write “improbably” because Boonville is a small rural town, and the brothel doesn’t seem like anything anyone would pay a lot of money for.)
Madam does, finally, admit to still having some feelings for Logger, but quickly adds, “I don’t run my life by what I want … that ain’t my way.”
There is a story to “Bulrusher” (as well as a big final plot twist that I saw coming a mile away). But I can’t say I was all that interested in it. I did enjoy, though, the opportunity to spend some time with these vividly drawn and skillfully played characters, and marvel at the beauty of Lawrence E. Moten III’s set, with its Edenic mix of wood and vegetation and sky projections, and its built-in river for Bulrusher and Vera to bathe in. It’s a set that really accentuates the mystical side of the story, and helps create the sense of Boonville being a magical place, part of the world but somehow apart from it as well.
There is music and dancing in this production — directed by McCarter’s associate artistic director, Nicole A. Watson — and a pretty dramatic fight. From the first scene to the last, there is always a lot going on. There is some gorgeous language in Bulrusher’s musings, and lots of laughs, too, many of them generated by the monumentally dense Boy.
“Some things are for sure,” he tells Bulrusher at one point, unshakeable in his love. “You are that. You are my for sure.”
“What are you talking about?” she responds.
The McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton will present “Bulrusher” at its Berlind Theater through Oct. 7. Visit mccarter.org.
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