Eisa Davis’ NorCal Tale Explores Isolation & Liberation
by Barry David Horwitz
A winding stream meanders along the stage where a dreaming girl communes with the Navarro River. Behind her looms the old Boonville hotel/brothel, with steep steps leading up to the women’s rooms.
Although it seems like Mark Twain’s America, it’s 1955, Mendocino County; and Bulrusher (Jordan Tyson) has spent her 18 years entirely in Boonville. Bulrusher is African and Native American, but her origins are shrouded in mystery. She has had no contact with the world outside and knows nothing about the new Civil Rights Movement.
The story goes that Schoolch (Jamie LaVerdiere) found Bulrusher floating down the river in a basket of reeds—like Moses. The teacher raised her in Boonville. Two others also keep a watchful eye on her: Madame (Shyla Lefner) and Logger (Joerge Bennett Watson), part of the rustic Northern California community.
As Logger, Watson sparkles with wit and down-home humor, a formidable presence. Lefner’s Madame plays a harsh, Puritanical role, as a strict businesswoman. Bulrusher herself can read the future in water but she is anxious and angry—a world to herself.
The story seems Biblical, full of poetry and lyricism. Bulrusher sells oranges on the road, calling them “balls of sun.” They all use Boontling, the local dialect, with startling words for sex—including “burlap,” “comb’s getting red,”and “cut cabbage.” Sexual repression is obvious, as suggestive words fly by in fast-moving countrified dialogue.
When Logger’s niece Vera (Cyndii Johnson) arrives from Birmingham, Alabama, she brings news of Civil Rights struggles. Vera explains the Civil Rights Movement, showing Bulrusher photos of Emmet Till’s tortured body. Logger and Vera, both African Americans, bring passion and power to the town that Time forgot.
When delightful Vera and Bulrusher cavort in the river, they become more than close friends. But later, their suspicious elders accuse them of “standing too close together.” Suppressed sexual desire lurks everywhere in remote Boonville. Robust country bumpkin Boy (Rob Kellog) announces suddenly that Bulrusher will now be his “girlfriend.”
The action takes place at Madame’s dark wooden “hotel” where men come to take their pleasure—though they take little pleasure in their sexuality. Madame presides, a feisty, tight-fisted brothel-keeper. Rule-bound Madame scrupulously avoids committing to either of her two suitors: lively Logger or up-tight Schoolch. Charming Logger reveals his feelings for Madame in his honest, brusque way of connecting to women.
In fact, all the characters in backwater Boonville spend a lot of time proclaiming their emotions, presenting them to the audience, rather than to each other—like a Biblical parable.
Vera’s earthiness and Logger’s resilience become Bulrusher’s clue to grow as an African American woman. They are the only Black people she has ever met. As her mentors, they help her envision a new, more equal world, after years of isolation and outright lies.
“Bulrusher” touches on so many themes: lesbian love, spiritual longings, and sexual stereotypes. There’s poetry, beauty, and hope in Eisa Davis’ lyrical fantasy of lost love and postponed redemption.
“Bulrusher” by Eisa Davis, directed by Nicole A. Watson, scenic design by Lawrence E. Moten III, costume design by Valerie St. Pierre Smith, lighting design by Sherrice Mojgani, projection design by Katherine Freer, by Berkeley Repertory Theatre, a co-production with McCarter Theatre Center. Info: berkelelyrep.org – to December 3, 2023.
Cast: Cyndii Johnson, Rob Kellogg. Jamie LaVerdiere, Shyla Lefner, Jordan Tyson, and Jeorge Bennett Watson.
Banner photo: Cyndii Johnson (Vera), Jeorge Bennett Watson (Logger), and Jordan Tyson (Bulrusher). Photos: T Charles Erickson