Monday, September 15, 2014

Race Relations and Identity Tackled In 'Bulrusher'

By Darlene Donloe

Who are you really?

Most people take for granted the knowledge or who they are and where they come from. But for some, knowing who they are, is a painful mystery – that when unraveled could be more raw than the unknown.

Take Eisa Davis’ Bulrusher, currently enjoying its Los Angeles premiere at the Skylight Theatre.  This drama, laced with comedic moments, is a hefty look inside the world of an 18-year-old multiracial orphan girl named Bulrusher (Bianca Lemaire), who is growing up in a predominantly white California town with no knowledge of where she comes from.

Yes, she’s heard stories of being abandoned by her mother. She’s heard stories of how her mother set her adrift in the ocean. She heard stories about how a man named Logger (Joshua Wolf Coleman) found her, saved her and gave her to a quiet, lonely school teacher named Schoolch (Warren Davis), who was willing to raise her. She’s heard the stories, but none of them fulfill her primal, human need to know who she is and where she comes from.

Bulrusher’s world changes forever when a black girl named Vera (Chauntae Pink), from Alabama suddenly appears with a secret of her own and conjures feelings within Bulrusher that she’s never known.

(l-r) Warren Davis, Heidi James, Joshua Wolf Coleman, 
(seated) Patrick Cragin, Bianca Lemaire and Chauntae Pink

But who is Bulrusher? The story of her self-discovery is told in the poetic language of Boontling and set in a rural town along the Navarro River. In tune with her inner being, Bulrusher, as a clairvoyant, has the power to see the future through water that someone has touched. The power and her vague background have made her someone of an outcast in the city and given her a reputation of being a witch. None of that bothers Bulrusher who is surprisingly self-assured even though she doesn’t have a clue about her ancestry.

Boontling is a regional jargon from Northern California.  The language adds flavor to the show.  For instance, sex is referred to as ‘heel scratchin,’ while dancing is referred to as ‘hobbin.’  Of course, unless you’re familiar with the terms beforehand, it can leave the audience clueless.

Bulrusher, which means ‘foundling or illegitimate child’ in Boontling, is a play about identity laced with the reality of race relations.  It’s the west vs. the south, black vs. white, men vs. women and the plight of Native Americans.  It’s even about sexuality with possible incest thrown in. It’s all encompassing and delivered in a way that is palatable, but too drawn out.

Eisa Davis has crafted an emotional and gut-wrenching play, which was a 2007 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. Davis, who was born in Berkeley, Calif., is an actress and singer as well as a playwright. She is also a niece of activist Angela Davis. Character driven, the play, directed by Nataki Garrett doesn’t have any bells and whistles – it draws purely on the words and the performances, which are impressive all around.

Garrett uses every inch of Hana Sooyeon Kim’s moveable set.  The characters flow in and out of scenes with ease – all the while moving pieces to set up the next scene change. It works. The fluidity of the direction enhances the watery elements presented throughout the production. 

Derrick McDaniel’s lighting is like an additional character. It not only sets the mood, it engulfs the stage taking to audience on a journey into the tiny town. Kudos to David B. Marling on his exceptional sound design.

All of the elements come together to make Bulrusher, which comes in at more than two hours, a lovely, but long evening of entertainment.

(l-r) Chauntae Pink, Heidi James and Bianca Lemaire 

 Bulrusher, written by Eisa Davis and directed by Nataki Garrett, stars Bianca Lemaire, Chauntae Pink, Joshua Wolf Coleman, Heidi James, Patrick Cragin and Warren Davis. 

*Actor Bert Emmett played Schoolch during the Sunday, Sept. 14 matinee.

On the DONLOE SCALE: D (don’t bother), O (oh, no), N (needs work), L (likeable), O (oh, yeah) and E (excellent), Bulrusher gets an E (excellent).

Bulrusher, Skylight Theatre Complex, 1816 ½ North Vermont, L.A.; 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 3 p.m. Sun. through Sept. 28; $30; 213 761-7061 or

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