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I want to write about the water. I want to write about never having seen it this way. A river that runs through a stage play. A river that characters dive into and emerge from. A river that ebbs with magic and flows with fortune telling, curving through time and space from a pre-Civil-Rights-era Mendocino County to McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, New Jersey, until Saturday, October 7, 2023. This river is a requirement from playwright Eisa Davis: the staging notes for her 2007 Pulitzer-finalist play ask for just a few things: oranges, apples, live guitar, and water.
Director Nicole A. Watson, in this co-production with McCarter and Berkeley Repertory Theatre, delivers Davis’s requests in abundance, bringing the outside inside in droves. I arrived early and watched people enter the theater, most commenting about the set design after pointing and sharing visceral ohs and ahs.
“Honey, this set is genius,” said the man behind me. “It’s like a starring character,” said his partner. It is multilevel and multimodal, subtle yet complex; water birthed from the splendid mind of scenic designer Lawrence E. Moten III. What we see is the fourth iteration of his design, giving us forests, woodlands, grass glades, and wet meadows—welcoming us, then submerging us, transforming us, then lifting us back up for air. Moten reminds us to respect the healing power of water in all its forms, whether in a bowl or a bay. If you go only to see the set design of Bulrusher, you will leave refreshed.
The river through Boonville
But if you stay, and of course, you should stay, then you get to meet your protagonist, Bulrusher (Jordan Tyson), a water-bearer, a well-springer, a witch. She is a twist on the trope of the magical negro—very much magical, able to predict people’s futures from the water, but she is very much not any white man’s supportive sidekick. In fact, she is the opposite: side-kicking a white man all over the stage at one point. Tyson’s performance is crystal clear: she helps us appreciate our anti-hero’s fish-out-of-water-ness while having to act both in and out of the water with ease.
Baby Bulrusher was abandoned in a basket on the very river that flows through the stage (think Moses, think Romulus, think Sargon). The baby floated into the town of Boonville, a real-life place in Northern California with its own customs, practices, and language: Bootling. Bootling is a local dialect with more than 1,000 secret words and phrases. It’s a Zora Neale Hurston-esque play where language is centered. Your playbill even comes with a translation guide for the “linguistically curious.” It's not necessary to understand the production, but it does help us to understand the people of 1950s Boonville.
All grown up but still searching for her source, Bulrusher (meaning belonging to the marsh) spends her time selling oranges and apples and hanging out at a brothel with Madame (Shyla Lefner), Logger (Jeorge Bennett Watson), Boy (Rob Kellogg), and her surrogate father, Schoolch (Jamie Laverdiere). Even among the sparkling ensemble, Watson simply glistens. He’s bold and free.
Bulrusher is the only Black woman in the town of Boonville, and she has never seen anyone who looks like her until Vera (Cyndii Johnson) arrives from Alabama as her mirror reflection. Vera is the gravitational force that shifts Bulrusher’s perspective on identity and love and race and family, creating a flood of emotion that challenges Bulrusher's place in the depths of Boonville, for better or worse.
Thanks for the water
There is definitely something in the water of Bulrusher. And though I did not get the splash I wanted in the theater, I did get baptized. As the theater emptied, I stayed seated to let the poetic prose wash over me. Like the beach, I need to see it again and again and be in it again and again—how could you ever go to the water just once? People all over the world know the healing power of our lakes, our rivers, our oceans, and our seas. A mysterious power that deserves to be protected and cherished and studied, there is still so much about water that we don’t understand. And when I finally did step out of the theater, it was raining—of course it was. And, of course, I didn’t have an umbrella, so I just walked in it. And got soaked by it. And gave thanks for it. Ase.
At top: Jordan Tyson as Bulrusher at McCarter Theatre Center. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson.)
What, When, Where
Bulrusher. By Eisa Davis, directed by Nicole A. Watson. $25-$55. Through October 7, 2023, at the Berlind Theater of McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton. (609) 258-2787 or mccarter.org.
McCarter is a wheelchair-accessible venue. There will be an ASL-interpreted performance of Bulrusher at 2pm on Saturday, September 23, and an audio-described and open-caption performance at 2pm on Sunday, September 24. Contact patron services at (609) 258-2787 to select the best seats for access.
Masks are not required.
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