Theater Review: BULRUSHER (Berkeley Rep)

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by Chuck Louden on November 4, 2023

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


Now playing at the inimitable Berkeley Rep, Eisa Davis’s lyrical, fascinating, humorous and gorgeous play Bulrusher — a 2007 Pulitzer Prize finalist — is set in 1955, 110 miles north of San Francisco in Boonville, California. Founded in 1890, the town had a unique culture and even its own slang language known as Boontling, as the locals called it, which was an elaborate jargon developed either by the men working the hop fields who wished to keep their conversations private, or by women who wanted to gossip unobtrusively about a young lady who had found herself kaishbook (pregnant). With a vocabulary of around 1600 words and fewer than 100 individuals who are able to fluently speak it, Boontling is simultaneously evolving and disappearing. The show’s program includes a glossary of over 100 terms of Boontling words and phrases. While comparisons can be made to the poetic word usage of Shakespeare (you can understand Bootling without glancing at the program), the time, place, cadence, poetic dialogue, repressed sexuality, and memories reminded me of Tennessee Williams’ works, except in this case, the Deep South comes to rural Mendicino County nearly 75 years ago.

Jordan Tyson (Bulrusher)
Jeorge Bennett Watson (Logger) and Jamie LaVerdiere (Schoolch)

Lawrence E. Moten III’s magnificent set, complete with a stream running around the circumference of the stage, is a multilevel wooden structure which serves as the bordello where most of the action takes place, as well as several outdoor local spots. The story takes its time introducing all the characters and their dynamics. The background blues soundtrack by Eisa Davis and sound designer Kate Marvin, along with Katherine Freer‘s colorful graphics, help to transition the days and scenes.

Rob Kellogg (Boy) and Jordan Tyson (Bulrusher)

While we meet our protagonist Bulrusher as a late teenager, the play is really a bildungsroman as sort of a folk story. At rise is Bulrusher (Jordan Tyson), a mixedrace girl known for her clairvoyant powers who lives in the mostly White small town. Wading in the stream, she sets up the backstory. By reading people’s bathwater, she’s able to read their aura and see their future. She knows and has been warned by others that her gift is a blessing and a curse so she uses this gift sparingly.

Cyndii Johnson (Vera) and Jordan Tyson (Bulrusher)

Bulrusher (which means “foundling” or “illegitimate child”) was found floating down the bulrushes of the Navarro River, abandoned as an infant in a basket like Moses — hence her special affinity for the water. Bulrusher is found and raised by Schoolch (James LaVerdiere), the town school teacher, a soft spoken and mostly silent man who spends much of his time socializing at the town’s bordello, which also serves as the local bar and hangout, and where the Madame (Shyla Lefner) is the bartender, proprietor, and more. One regular is Logger (Jeorge Bennett Watson), a Black local worker who enjoys his beer as much as his local girls at the bordello. Then there is Boy (Rob Kellogg), a guitar playing former classmate of Bulrusher who has suddenly decided after years of teasing her in school, that she is the one for him, and

Cyndii Johnson (Vera), Jeorge Bennett Watson (Logger), Jordan Tyson (Bulrusher)

One day while she’s hanging out at the stream, Bulrusher comes across a young African-American woman, Vera (Cyndii Johnson), who’s come up from Mobile, Alabama just as the civil rights struggle with bus boycotting is in full swing. She has come to town to seek out her uncle Lucas, Logger. Bulrusher, who has never seen another Black woman, much less one dressed in bright colors and wearing makeup, is smitten. (Valerie St. Pierre Smith, costumes; Tommy Kurzman, wig, hair, and make-up.) Bulrusher and Vera are drawn to each other emotionally and physically.

Rob Kellogg (Boy) and Jeorge Bennett Watson (Logger)
Jeorge Bennett Watson (Logger), Shyla Lefner (Madame),
Jamie LaVerdiere (Schoolch), Rob Kellogg (Boy)

The play is two hours and fifty minutes with intermission, but it doesn’t feel like it. Act I is mostly exposition, while in Act II the estranged relationships and dysfunctional families take the focus, building to a thrilling and moving denouement. There are hidden secrets and revelations that take place which will change the dynamics of all the characters. Under Nicole A. Watson’s astute direction, every incredible actor in this has their moment to shine. Ms. Tyson in the title role has the biggest burden of carrying the story on her shoulders, and the young actress does not disappoint. She has a sweetness, an intensity, a painful longing, and a smile to turn the world on. As Vera, Johnson’s transformation from gawky, frightened outsider to confident, self-aware young woman a joy to behold. From the gorgeous Lefner’s multilayered Madame to the dynamic Watson’s vibrant Logger to compelling LaVerdiere’s still-waters-run-deep Schoolch, this is one pitch-perfect cast. Audience’s thirsting for a fascinating story told with awesome theatricality will be slaked.

Jordan Tyson (Bulrusher) and Shyla Lefner (Madame)

photos by T Charles Erickson/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Berkeley Rep
co-production with McCarter Theatre Center
Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison Street @ Shattuck
ends on December 3, 2023
for tickets ($22.50-$134), call 510.647.2949 or visit Berkeley Rep

Jeorge Bennett Watson (Logger) and Cyndii Johnson (Vera)

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