The “slow theatre” at work in Bulrusher matches the pace of the town. The play’s resonant themes, along with strong acting and design work, make for a nonetheless gripping show. It runs through September 14.
There’s the slow listening movement, and the slow food movement. And while I’ve been to long theatre and drawn-out theatre, the pace of Bulrusher — the latest from director Valerie Curtis-Newton and Intiman Theatre — feels like something else altogether. The flow of this river is a contemplative one.
The story, by Eisa Davis, takes us to Boonville, a town in northern California. It’s a place small enough that its secrets seem to linger. That’s no less the case at the town brothel, run by Madame (Christine Pilar) and frequented by Logger (Reginald André Jackson); and the lobby of which 18-year-old Bulrusher (Ayo Tushinde) and her adoptive father Schoolch (Charles Leggett) seem to use as their living room. The town has all but dried up when the sawmill closed down. And though we see few townspeople, we know that Logger, a Black man, and Bulrusher, a multi-racial teenager, are anomalies there.
About the only magic in town is Bulrusher’s power to read the water — to tell fortunes. But Schoolch, fearful of Bulrusher’s own future, as townsfolk call her a witch, has forbidden her from using it for anything but the weather.
Along comes Logger’s niece, Vera (Allyson Lee Brown), on a train from Birmingham, Alabama, bringing to town a different kind of racial lens. It’s 1955, and there’s a lot to bring: Jet magazine arrives with graphic news of 14-year-old Emmett Till’s murder in Mississippi; White cops are assaulting Black women and girls; segregation is still the law of the land; and respectability politics are heavy upon the shoulders of Black communities, Vera’s family included.
Along with those, Vera brings a mirror of identity to Bulrusher. The two share a bond the isolated teenager has never had before — refusing friends, and intimacy, she has always connected with the river instead — and Bulrusher is finally allowed to grow beyond that which the town, and her muddied history, has allowed her.
A few key characters demand thoughtful nuance, and the cast is lovely for this show. Tushinde bursts with life as Bulrusher. Her inflections feel sincere, as do her wonder and searching through life. Brown as Vera is engaging, both as an influence for Bulrusher and a bold character in her own right; no simple sidekick, she’s got problems of her own to solve.
As Madame, Pilar has a stoicism that some have found off-putting. I rather liked Pilar in the role; and her world-weary stoicism makes her infrequent breaks from it — flickers of kindness, flashes of anger — all the more compelling. Her intrigue as Madame is a similar phenomenon to that found in Schoolch’s character. Neither are meant to be over-the-top. Schoolch talks so infrequently — it was 40 minutes in before he uttered his first line — that when he does talk, it carries an impact beyond the words. Leggett is a rare actor who can create a robust sense of character with expressions and demeanor (and an occasional lick on the harmonica) on so few lines.
Much less nuanced were the characters of Logger and Boy (Adam Fontana). Jackson did a good job with the oft-talking, little-changing Logger, a character who’s self-absorbed but not unkind. Boy’s character wasn’t much more than a prop, who fawns over Bulrusher, which left Fontana little to work with in the role.
The beauty of the stage and scenic design (by Intiman’s Artistic Director Jennifer Zeyl) was in their simplicity, along with some hidden treasures. Sound and lighting design (by Matt Starritt and Robert J. Aguilar, respectively) each played up the water themes, and both set the right style of tranquility. Props were kept to a minimum and virtually all stored on stage — or in stage, rather, in trap doors in the floor. Orange crates were co-opted in many uses.
Opening the play, and a few scenes in between, the characters take their time shuffling those orange crates around the stage. They’re only marginally useful to the stage setup, which clearly could be hurried into places in a more efficient manner. Their purpose, instead, seems to be another layer of storytelling, in which their shuffling is a unique, and organic, way of showing how the characters move about their day, from industriousness to boredom to ease.
Though the town feels quaint, the play speaks to modernity. Segments of queer love, racial identity, stunted emotions, and finding oneself ring true, some 60 years after the setting; and the question of where Black people can feel most safely at home, in their own home towns and nation, rings out as persistently today as ever.
It’s a thought-provoking play with a lot going for it, in characters, design, and nuance.
Welcome to “slow theatre.” For this show, it works.
This show is produced in partnership with the Hansberry Project.
Bulrusher runs through 9/14 at the Jones Playhouse in the University District. Tickets are $15 advance reservation, or free walk-ups for all; tickets and info here. For showtimes, visit Calendar page. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall; theatre is wheelchair accessible.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.