Running now through September 28th at the Skylight Theatre, this is a play of singular ideas. It is a coming-of-age story, a narrative that demands one character’s spiritual, sexual and psychological renaissance. It speaks to the seemingly timeless truism that through our discoveries of self we can find our place in the world.
Playing upon mythology and interspersed with elegiac poetry and striking visuals, this production has an ethereal beauty that sometimes gets mired down in the loquacious tenacity of Ms. Davis’ s script. There is a lack of allowing the visuals to carry the narrative, and the sublimely subtle nuances of the story sometimes flounder in the dialogue. The words always seem to get in the way.
The story takes place in a small, mostly white town in northern California in the 1950s, and it centers on an 18-year-old orphan named Bulrusher (Bianca Lemaire). Found on the river as a baby, she was abandoned by her birth mother, who she believes tried to kill her. Bulrusher has a mystical power; she is able to see people’s futures in the water. When a person comes into contact with water, she is able to touch them or the water and see images of their future lives. Her abandonment in the water as a baby, she believes, instilled this aquatic power. This spiritual component underlines a mythological element to the piece, and raises the simple story of self-realization to one of poetic mysticism. The irony, of course, being that Bulrusher can see everyone else’s future but her own.
By the time we meet her, Bulrusher has been raised by a white man named Schoolch (Warren Davis), a man of very few words. Schoolch spends most of his time at a local brothel, enamored with the woman who runs it, Madame (Heidi James). Another patron, an African-American man named Logger (Joshua Wolf Coleman), is also enamored with Madame, and he, too, spends most of his time at her establishment. There is also Boy (Patrick Cragin), a young white man who follows Bulrusher with his guitar professing his love for her, mostly in song.
Enter Vera (Chauntae Pink), Logger’s niece, a young African-American woman from Alabama who is seeking a new life with her uncle. It is Vera’s arrival that sparks Bulrusher’s desire for awareness, for exploration, for her own identity. Having been raised by a white man in a mostly white town, Vera serves as a mirror to Bulrusher. She is the first black woman she interacts with, and their interactions highlight the differences in their backgrounds while allowing them to connect on a deeply profound level. Bulrusher sees her heritage in Vera. They are connected spiritually.
As Bulrusher and Vera’s relationship deepens, so too does Bulrusher’s desire for autonomy and family, a contradiction that adds beautiful conflict to the second act. Being raised an orphan, she longs to forge a familial bond with Vera. The two embark on an awakening that will change both of their lives forever.
Director Nataki Garrett boosts many of the individual moments of the play with carefully choreographed movements that gently thread the poetry and the profound character arcs. During the scene where Bulrusher and Vera swim in the river in act two, for instance, they’re far upstage. The lighting gives the rippling effect of water flowing all around them, the stage fills with mist, and the two actresses, who are mostly in silhouette at this point, are moving their bodies in sensual rhythm, creating a spectacular moment. Unfortunately, the mist is utilized too many times in the second act and it never really goes away for the final scene—one of the disadvantages of a small theater.
The cast is comprised of capable actors, each capturing the time and place within their characters, which gives the play a feeling of the time and the place. It is authentic, never forced. There is a bit of local slang written into the dialogue, but this only perpetuates the period-piece feel, and never hinders the story.
As Bulrusher, Bianca Lemair possesses a wondrous capacity for innocence. Her face registers a look of youthful joy, rage, love and despair in equal parts with equal temper. She delves deep into the volatile world of a teenager who is becoming something more. Her maturation is desperate and convincing, all while maintaining a sweet dignity that keeps us rooting for her.
The play speaks to us about race, love, gender and forgiveness, and in each instance, it imposes upon us a gentle but firm assurance of the inevitable pain in the world around us. It dares to know the future of some and the past of others. And as Bulrusher must learn, it is not her gift of foresight, but her lack of history, that matters. It’s only through her connection with Vera that she starts to realize that her own past is made up of so much more than she ever dreamed. This play takes a singular story and uses it to expound a universal idea. It’s about humanity’s need to connect, to understand ourselves, and those who came before us. It wants us to connect, and so we do—we connect with this intimate cast of characters for a brief amount of time. In them, we see ourselves, our history, and perhaps even our future. And though Bulrusher cannot read her own, it is the future that matters most. In the absence of certainty there can only be hope.
By Eisa Davis
Skylight Theatre Company and Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble
1816 ½ North Vermont. Los Angeles 90027
August 24-September 28
Tickets are $30
For reservations call 213.761.7061 or http://www.skylighttix.com