There is a good deal of trauma, passion, and magical mystery in Eisa Davis's play Bulrusher, which opened Wednesday night at Berkeley Repertory Theater. And it's play that manages to touch on many themes at once, while telling a fairly quaint period tale set in 1955 in Mendocino County, in the town of Boonville which famously invented its own local language, Boontling.
The play centers on an 18-year-old mixed-race girl, improbably named Bulrusher (Jordan Tyson) — so named because she was found as an infant, floating down a river in a basket that got caught in some bulrushes. The family she has found for herself in the mostly white town of Boonville includes the schoolteacher who raised her, known to everyone as Schoolch (the Boontling word for "schoolteacher", played by Jamie LaVerdiere), and the woman who runs the town brothel, known as Madame (Shyla Lefner) — the French pronunciation only. There's also a boy her age in town who likes her, known only as Boy (Rob Kellogg), who decides on the first day the play is set that he's going to make Bulrusher his girlfriend.
Bulrusher communes with the nearby river and "reads" people's water — she appears to have the ability to predict the weather via the river, and if a person dips their hands or face in a bowl of water she gets visions of their future.
Lucas (Jeorge Bennett Watson), a former lumber man who lives just outside town, is the only Black person around, and things are shaken up when he receives a visit from his niece Vera from Alabama (Cyndii Johnson), with whom Bulrusher becomes immediately smitten and obsessed.
"Haven't you ever seen a Black girl before?" asks Vera after realizing her new friend's fascination.
The two begin an immediate friendship and business partnership — Bulrusher makes money reselling fruit she sources in nearby Cloverdale — and from there things get complicated. And there is also a subplot about Lucas and Schoolch both vying for the affections of Madame — the latter by coming into the brothel each day just to drink tea.
Without going much further into the plot, we can suffice it to say that Bulrusher gets an education in both human emotions and life outside of Boonville. Vera tries to teach Bulrusher, who has never left this remote place, what it's like for Black people in the Jim Crow South. And Bulrusher tries to convince Vera to stick around in California.
A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize 15 years ago, Bulrusher is a play that is dense with poetic phrases and a number of Boontling words the meaning of we are mostly meant to intuit. Davis's writing style can veer too far into poetic preciousness, but her dialogue always feels spot-on and natural. Save for a twist at the play's end that feels overwrought, the intersecting plot-lines all feel well imagined.
Nicole A. Watson's direction allows us to jump into the story and know these characters as much through their gestures as through their words. But in handling the shows many, many monologues — something that gives it a sense of coming from the mid-20th Century, theater-wise, as well as being set in it — there is too much indulgence at times when some restraint might have been welcome.
As a fictional time capsule, Bulrusher is an entertaining and enlightening glimpse at not-well-known corner of California — at a time, Davis imagines, when a mixed-race orphan girl might be able to have an idyllic childhood untouched by racism. The play assumes an especially unique lens on race in 20th Century America, as a result of this unique setting.
The performance by Johnson as Vera is particularly compelling, as is the idea that it may be necessary, as Bulrusher grows into adulthood, to show her how living among white people may have robbed her of something too.
At least, Davis seems to say, Northern California has long been a refuge for misfits, and in a town that sought to "other" itself from the outside world by inventing a private language full of in-jokes, otherness could be something of a badge of honor for anyone.
Bulrusher plays through December 3 at Berkeley Rep. Find tickets here.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson/Berkeley Rep