The power of live theater to transport an audience to another time, another place, while exploring and revealing the mysteries of the human heart, is made gorgeously, magically clear in Skylight Theatre Company and Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble’s co-production of the Los Angeles premiere of Eisa Davis’s Pulitzer Prize finalist Bulrusher.
The time is 1955 and the place is the Northern California town of Boonville, hidden so deep in Mendocino County that residents have developed their own lexicon of over 1300 words and phrases to, as Davis puts it, “discuss taboo subjects and keep outsiders out.”
Eighteen-year-old Bulrusher (Bianca Lemaire) has grown up one of only two “Negroes” in this world, one that could hardly be farther removed from the pre-Civil Rights Movement South, or from the rest of 1950s California for that matter.
Raised by Schoolch (Warren Davis), the town’s bespectacled bachelor schoolteacher, after being discovered floating in a basket like a female Moses amongst the Navarro River bulrushes, Bulrusher has grown up blessed (or cursed) with the gift of clairvoyance, along with quite a way with words.
When not out picking, sorting, crating, and selling oranges, Bulrusher, like her taciturn adoptive dad, is likely to be found whiling away the hours in the back parlor of the local bordello run by Madame (Heidi James), an elegant, warm-hearted beauty whose most frequent—and pickiest—customer would appear to be Logger (Joshua Wolf Coleman), the town’s only other “colored” resident, quite obviously smitten with onetime bedmate Madame if no longer she with him.
Rounding out Bulrusher’s world is Streebs Wilkerson, aka Boy (Patrick Cragin), the lanky, guitar-strumming, utterly smitten teenager who’s doing his darnedest to make Bulrusher forget that he once tormented her younger self (as adolescent boys are apt to do) and see him as a man in love.
Living in such comforting, if at times frustrating, isolation from the world outside Boonville, Bulrusher is shaken to her very core by the unexpected arrival of Vera (Chauntae Pink), fresh off the train from Birmingham, Alabama and on a quest for her uncle Lucas, who turns out to be none other than Logger.
Coming from a world where church bombings are the order of the day, where a white police officer can rape a black woman with impunity, and where fourteen-year-old Emmett Till has only recently been brutally murdered for having “flirted” with a white girl, Vera can scarcely believe that a world like Bulrusher’s even exists.
Meanwhile, Bulrusher exults in seeing herself reflected for the first time in someone so like herself, it’s no wonder she finds herself feeling feelings she had no idea were inside her till Vera’s arrival.
As playwright Davis ever so leisurely explores Bulrusher’s world, she allows us bit by bit to get to know and care about the richly three-dimensional characters she has created.
Yes, plot threads may get tied up rather a bit too neatly (albeit satisfyingly) in the end, but no matter.
Davis entices you with Bulrusher’s poetic way with words and charms you with dialog sprinkled with a hundred or so colorful Boontling words, all the while insuring an audience’s investment in her characters’ lives and futures, no matter that we may not always understand the “ling” that these Boonvillians “harp.”
Anyone with the mistaken impression that theater in L.A. is somehow “less” than what you’d see in New York or Chicago or other reputed “theater town” need only check out Bulrusher’s Los Angeles premiere to be shown the error of his or her ways, it being hard to imagine a finer production than the one now onstage at the Skylight Theater on Vermont.
Nataki Garrett’s direction is as inspired as direction gets, and with scenic designer Hana S. Kim’s imaginative set working wonders with walls made of orange-crate slats and her ravishing video design combining with David B. Marling’s striking sound design and Derrick McDaniel’s stunning lighting to make us believe in the waters of the Navarro River and the world on its shores, this is as stunning a production design as you could ever hope to see on an intimate theater budget, completed to perfection by Naila Aladdin Sanders’ weathered, character/era-appropriate costumes.
And what a cast Garrett has directed, beginning with Lemaire’s star-making performance in the title role, the Detroit native combining a sweetness, an intensity, a painful longing, and a smile to turn the world on.
Pink, yet another terrific UCLA talent moving on to professional stardom, makes Vera’s transformation from gawky, frightened outsider to confident, self-aware young woman a joy to behold.
L.A. newcomer Cragin could not make for a more irresistible Boy, and besides acting up a spunky storm and providing the production’s original music arrangement, this guy can sing and strum with the best of them.
As for the “adult” contingent, the over-thirty threesome matches the young’uns every step of the way. In fact, from the gorgeous James’ multilayered Madame to the dynamic Coleman’s vibrant Logger to compelling Davis’s still-waters-run-deep Schoolch, this is one pitch-perfect cast.
Only Vera’s wig and fight director Steve Rankin’s Bulrusher-vs.-Boy tussle come across not realistic enough for a production of this caliber.
Completing the Bulrusher team are dramaturg Dylan Southard, choreographer Ayana Cahrr, properties designer Katherine S. Hunt, production stage manager Christopher Hoffman, and assistant stage manager Victor Murillo.
Bulrusher is produced by Racquel Lehrman, Theatre Planners. Victoria Watson, Theatre Planners, is associate producer.
It’s taken eight years from Bulrusher’s 2006 World Premiere for Davis’s magical play to make it to Los Angeles. A production as all-around marvelous as the one onstage at the Skylight makes it well worth the wait.
August 31, 2014
Photos: Ed Krieger