Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
AIRDATE: FEBRUARY 13, 2009
Here’s a true confession: I’m a sucker for historical fiction – in books and plays.
“ Bulrusher ” isn’t about distant history. It’s set in 1955, on the cusp of the Civil Rights movement, in the town of Boonville , California , up in Mendocino County . The logging business is mostly gone. But Boontling has remained. That’s an inventive argot, a private little slanguage of some 1300 words and phrases, created at the turn of the last century, primarily to discuss taboo subjects, and to keep outsiders out. Even today, some people still, as they say, “harp the ling.” But in the world of the play, one young girl stays away from that kind of talk.
Bulrusher was so named because she was found as an infant, Moses-like, floating in the river in a basket. She was raised, rather sternly, by the local schoolteacher, or Schoolch . He never bothered to tell her she’s black, or inform her about any parts of being a woman. There’s only one other African American in town, a former logger. There’s also a cute but cocky Boy and a bordello madam. They all hang out on the brothel porch, and it’s been status quo for quite some time. But when a young girl arrives from Al abama on a Jim Crow train, she shakes everything up, instigating black-white conflicts and awakening long-deadened feelings of love.
Written by actor/singer/songwriter Eisa Davis, niece of activist Angela Davis, “ Bulrusher ” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2007. New Village Arts Theatre scored the regional premiere. They love a juicy play spiked with a little other-worldliness, and this piece delivers. Bulrusher talks to the river, in ethereal poetic ramblings, and she can read people’s futures in the water they’ve touched.
The set is striking, designed by director Kristianne Kurner , replete with a rainstorm and a river. It’s beautifully lit, with the yellow-orange glow of sunset and a bluish cast of late afternoon. But the characters don’t engage us sufficiently. They’re intriguing, but not deep, and at times, their actions are inadequately motivated. Some parts of the drama are predictable; others, anti-climactic. The language, while interesting, doesn’t add much.
As Bulrusher , Jasmine Al len is excellent in the realistic scenes, especially when she connects with young Vera, or beats up the Boy who likes her. But she doesn’t exude a supernatural sense when she’s in her more magical mode. The ensemble and direction are outstanding. And yet….. the play is unsatisfying. And what is it really about? Multiple searches for identity, insufficiently examined. And being true to yourself . And it do go on… for three hours. The place and period are fascinating ; the production is lovely. But I wish it had taught me – or moved me — a little more.
“ Bulrusher ” runs through March 1, at New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad .
©2009 PAT LAUNER