Review: `Bulrusher’

Opened Friday, Sept. 21, 2007

Shotgun’s lyrical Bulrusher finds poetry in love and Boont
Three stars Beauty and Boont to boot

In Shotgun Players’ Bulrusher, the characters most definitely harp the ling.

Set in Boonville, in the heart of Mendocino’s Anderson Valley, in the mid-’50s, Eisa Davis’ drama traffics in Boontling, the language peculiar (and we do mean peculiar) to that part of the state.

A goofy regional dialect made up of, as one character puts it, “secrets and jokes,” Boont is full of funny words like “lews n larmers” for “gossip” and “gorm” for “food.” Characters slip in and out of the dialect (with its abundance of expressions for sex) throughout the 2 1/2-hour play, and there’s a handy glossary in the program.

But you don’t have to know the words to get the general idea if something is “bahl” (good) or “can-kicky” (angry). There’s a certain poetry that infuses Davis’ play and its dreamy monologues, bluesy songs and rhythms of everyday speech.

“Bulrusher,” a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama, is an ambitious coming-of-age story about an orphan called Bulrusher (Kirya Traber, above) — so named because she was found as an infant, abandoned in the bulrushes of the Navarro River.

The African-American baby was raised by a single male school teacher, called Schoolch (Terry Lamb), who’s mostly silent unless he’s angry.

Bulrusher grew up an outcast in the small town, where the only other black person was a logger named Lucas (D. Anthony Harper, below left), who now spends his time wooing the local madam (Louise Chegwidden) when he isn’t partaking of her employees’ services.

When we first see Bulrusher, she’s standing amid the towering redwoods of Lisa Clark’s beautiful forest set. She’s wading through the river in the pouring rain. Water, we later learn, is an important factor in Bulrusher’s life.

She can see into peoples’ futures by touching water they’ve touched. And when she’s in the river, the river speaks to her and tells her the weather.

Branded a witch, Bulrusher is content making a living selling oranges and keeping to herself. One of the town boys (Cole Smith, below right), who used to make fun of her as a child, is now intent on making her his girlfriend, though he’s not quite brave enough to put his arm around the town’s only “colored girl’’ in public.

Bulrusher’s placid world is upended by the arrival of Vera (Jahmela Biggs), a beautiful, somewhat mysterious young black woman from the racially troubled city of Birmingham, Ala.

It’s from Vera that Bulrusher learns about what it means to be black in 1950s America — separate doors, backs of busses, lynchings and the like.

Co-directors Margo Hall and Ellen Sebastian Chang elicit warm, believable performances from their actors, with Traber’s Bulrusher especially affecting. There’s extraordinary innocence and passion — and later anger and violence — in Bulrusher. She’s a fascinating character made even more so in Traber’s honesty.

Smith as Bulrusher’s suitor has tremendous energy and charm, and Biggs as Vera has such fascinating allure as an enigmatic stranger that it’s no wonder Bulrusher becomes obsessed with her.

Playwright Davis, a Berkeley native and niece of activist Angela Davis, deals with major issues such as race, sexual awakening and civil rights in such personal ways they hardly seem like issues.

Act 1 tends to blur when the story veers away from Bulrusher, but Act 2 pulls everything together in ways both powerful and slightly melodramatic.

Davis has powers as a writer to find beauty in almost everything, and her play pulses with compassion and life.

And Bulrusher has the kind of satisfying, uplifting ending you can only find in live theater — vibrant, poetic, immediate and thrilling.

Now that’s a bahl doosey boo.

For information about Bulrusher visit

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