Published: March 2, 2011
Fordham Theatre’s Mainstage season of strong women continues with “Bulrusher,” Eisa Davis’ involving, if underwritten, drama. The play takes a while to satisfactorily establish its story, but the production, directed by Dawn Akemi Saito, works around that problem with some sturdy performances and an arresting physical design.
After being found among the reeds of the Navarro River as a baby, a young African-American woman named Bulrusher grows up in 1950s Boonville, California with the ability to read fortunes. Her racial identity is unknown to her, being one of only two African-American residents in the town. Her culture shock comes in the form of Vera, a runaway who unexpectedly ignites Bulrusher’s feelings of pride and love and sets her on a course of action that leads to a confrontation with her power and with her birth mother.
The play builds to a predictable yet striking climax, but its central conceit is not as well-defined as it could have been. The real purpose of Bulrusher’s clairvoyance, aside from being an interesting story angle and an exposition delivery system, is often unclear. Aside from a couple scenes displaying Bulrusher’s reticence and the occasional remark about townspeople calling her a witch, the first act underplays her ability’s existence to the point that one questions its necessity.
It becomes evident in the second act that her repression of this gift is a parallel to her burgeoning pride in being black, which is only awakened by the attitude and opinions of the outsider, Vera. The plot thread evolves into something interesting, but the resolution would have been more uplifting if we actually knew how Bulrusher’s power negatively affects her and her neighbors.
If the play had more than six characters, it could have created a richer social context for Bulrusher and her supernatural ability. At least the actors Saito has cast help distract us from the play’s shortcomings. Moire Kiyingi, FCLC ’13, is a sympathetic lead who convincingly shows Bulrusher’s maturation over the evening. Mayaa Boateng, FCLC ’13, portrays Vera’s anger well enough, though her performance is derailed by a grossly overstretched Southern accent.
Dan Kleinman, FCLC ’13, plays a local boy aiming for Bulrusher’s affections, and though his opening scenes feel more like harassment than courtship, he eventually becomes funnier and more likable. Jessica Farr, FCLC ’11, Carlos Harris, FCLC ’12, and Parker Madison Weissman, fill the adult roles with impressive conviction, despite some slight enunciation trouble. The ensemble’s lively rapport makes the play entertaining enough to withstand the insecurely written premise.
The design team bequeaths “Bulrusher” some stimulating visual touches. Kris Stone’s set showcases a wooden wall that curves to the ground and extends into a thrust stage, creating a shape reminiscent of a waterfall. It’s an image of Bulrusher’s power contained in a rural setting (she reads fortunes through water).
Decorating the set and Becky Bodurtha’s straightforward costumes is Sarah Sidman’s astute lighting. Her various skies include the closest attempt I’ve seen on stage to recreate the shifting grays of a thunderstorm. The combined physical elements suggest earthiness cohabitating with civilization, rather like the naturalistic Bulrusher living among settled businesspeople. It’s all lovely to observe, but it also offers a greater suggestion of what Bulrusher’s role in Boonville is or should be than what the text describes.
As with any of Fordham’s shows, it would be good to see “Bulrusher” to support your fellow students and your professors. In the case of this particular show, it would be an instructive exercise in seeing actors and designers make the most of a flawed play. Saito’s production is a fortuitous meeting of talent that turns a somewhat uninspired play into a genuinely interesting evening.