Of beauty, Bulrusher and Boontling

Bulrusher 1
ABOVE: Jordan Tyson is the title character in Eisa Davis’ lyrical coming-of-age story, Bulrusher, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. BELOW: Cyndii Johnson (left) is mysterious stranger Vera, Jeorge Bennett Watson (center) is Logger, two people who loom large in the world of Tyson’s Bulrusher (right). Photos by T. Charles Erickson

Sixteen years ago, when I first reviewed Eisa Davis’ Bulrusher in a Shotgun Playes production, I marveled at the practically Shakespearean way Berkeley native Davis blended fantastical language, epic dramatic moments and intimate personal tragedies and triumphs.

All these years later, now that Bulrusher has returned, this time at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in a co-production with the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J., my opinion hasn’t changed. This is a more opulent production, but Davis’ play is a classic American drama ratcheted up a few notches through the powerfully skillful way it looks at race and through the inclusion of Boontling, a jargon particular to Northern California’s Anderson Valley and the Mendocino County town of Boonville. Words like bilchin, bow for and heel scratchin, all of which mean having sex, date back to the late 19th century, and except for in this Pulitzer Prize finalist play, are mostly forgotten today.

You don’t have to know any Boontling to understand the words when they pop up (there’s a handy glossary in the program, which is available digitally and, praise the heavens and apologies to the environment, on actual paper). Davis is such an adept poet that she can slip in the words, and just through context we get the idea.

It seems most of Bulrusher takes place outdoors, and the set by Lawrence E. Moten III conjues an almost fairy tale vision of Mendocino, with the rivers and redwoods, fog and rain. Projection designer Katherine Freer devises the most beautiful evocation of waves crashing on a beach I’ve seen indoors.

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There’s a crescent of water at the front of the stage because water is so important to the story. The first person we see in that water is Bulrusher (Jordan Tyson), a young woman who nearly lost her life in that cold water when, as a newborn, her mother set her adrift, like Moses, with only a small raft woven of river weeds to protect her. Bulrusher, a mixed-race baby, was found by a Black logger named Lucas, who goes by Loggeer (Jeorge Bennett Watson) and raised by Schoolch (Jamie LaVerdiere) a schoolteacher of few words.

Bulrusher’s relationship to water is a complicated one. Though the river could have ended her life barely after it started, the water also triggers her second sight. Such clairvoyance and her brown skin make Bulrusher an outcast in Boonville except for her tiny circle, which also includes the proprietor of the local brothel, appropriately called Madame (Shyla Lefner) and a boy (Rob Kellogg) who used to taunt her but now sees her as a possible romantic partner.

Into this contained little world, complete with its own lingo, comes someone from far away. Vera (Cyndii Johnson), fresh of the bus from Alabama, shakes up Bulrusher’s life in a lot of ways, not least because she’s the first Black woman Bulrusher has met, and has tales to tell of a country rife with racial strife and violence.

Secrets, confessions and love all begin to swirl in the wake of Vera’s arrival, and though Act 1 still feels overstuffed with exposition, Act 2 goes all in on the drama. Director Nicole A. Watson and her glorious cast find beauty and power in the lives of ordinary country people who are unafraid to expose their emotions, even at the risk of rejection.

Bulrusher is a long play (nearly three hours including intermission), but it’s worth every minute for the gorgeous and moving conclusion. We’re all familiar with the coming-of-age tropes, but here, we really feel the growth, especially spiritually, of Bulrusher. Tyson’s central performance grows and grows until we’re seeing practically a different person than the one we met hours before. It’s bahl (good) to know a little of the Boontling lingo, but it’s ever so much better to watch a young woman coming into her own power.

Eisa Davis’ Bulrusher continues through Dec. 3 in Berkeley Repertorty Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $22.50-$134 (subject to change). Running time is nearly 3 hours (including a 15-minute intermission). Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.