BULRUSHER Stages the Dangers of Identification — Review
In Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing, a Black woman Irene is passing as white in a hotel when she encounters an old friend Clare. Clare is also a Black woman passing as white, and the encounter between women sparks warm recognition but also cold distress. As Irene obsesses over Clare’s face, Larsen writes, “Arresting eyes, slow and mesmeric and with, for all their warmth, something withdrawn and secret about them. Ah! Surely! They were Negro eyes! mysterious and concealing.”
A similar moment occurs in Bulrusher, Eisa Davis’ play now at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, NJ. Bulrusher (Jordan Tyson) is a headstrong teenager living in the isolated town of Boonville, California in 1955. A light-skinned Black woman, Bulrusher considers herself to be the only “colored woman” around—that is, until she gives a ride to the confident Vera (Cyndii Johnson), a Black woman searching for a family member. When Bulrusher is finally face-to-face with a woman who looks like her, she states “In this dark light, I see her, / and build a pedestal / of water. She is the one, / the only one, nothing is caught / between us but my throat.”
Both Irene and Bulrusher are feeling a swirl of emotions: infatuation, kinship, lust, jealousy, and even the dawning of racial self-consciousness. Yet by using the language of theater, Eisa Davis embodies an erotic and psychological tension in ways that Passing’s writing cannot. When actress Jordan Tyson speaks about Vera, she faces the audience: suddenly we’re implicated in Bulrusher’s secret longing, and the air between Tyson and our seats becomes the “dark light.” It’s one of the many gorgeous scenes in this ambitious McCarter production.
As much as Bulrusher is about its titular character, it’s also about the community that secludes and harbors her. Bulrusher was abandoned by her family, sent down the Navarro River in a basket when she was an infant. The quiet schoolteacher known as Schoolch (Jamie Laverdiere) discovered her and raised her. He also forbids her from using her prophetic powers: Bulrusher can see someone’s future if she feels water previously touched by them.
Much of the play’s action takes place around the parlor of a brothel owned by Madame (Shyla Lefner), a businesswoman with dreams of leaving Boonville. One of her regular patrons is the witty Logger (Jeorge Bennett Watson), one of the last remaining Black men in the area. The logger looks out for Bulrusher, while the naive Boy (Rob Kellogg) attempts to make Bulrusher his girlfriend.
Eisa Davis might be best known as a performer, and musical theatre folks are likely be familiar with her role “mother” in Broadway’s Passing Strange. Yet Bulrusher was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2007, and it’s an astonishing literary feat. Davis illustrates a highly-specific world: a Boonville rural town that’s just on the verge of technological influence, yet still holding onto traditions like “harping the ling” (a language of special phrases unique to the area). Under Davis’ writing, Boonville becomes an allegorical, post-racial space. References to mixed race people abound, and although identity differences are felt by characters of color, within the town they don’t experience discrimination. The arrival of Vera portends the collapse of Bulrusher’s racial innocence. Vera brings news of the outside world, of police brutality and Jim Crow. It’s up to Bulrusher to decide if not being seen as “Black” in Boonville makes her home a utopic haven or a deracinated, colorblind nightmare.
If this sounds too heady, don’t worry. Director Nicole A. Watson never loses sight of her characters’ devotion to friends and family, and she skillfully stages scenes in Madame’s parlor which feels like the community watering hole. We’re allowed to luxuriate in the repartee between actors, and the humor which sharply punctuates every scene.
As Bulrusher, Tyson commands the stage with girlish pride, yet her quivering face betrays sublimated desires. The rest of the ensemble is given ample space to shine by Watson: much of the show’s tone remains casual and breezy, while currents of fear churn underneath. Particularly great at achieving this tone is Jeorge Bennett Watson, who draw out melancholy in the his scenes despite the logger’s sunny demeanor. If anyone’s not served well in this production, it’s Kellogg’s Boy, who’s presented as a hapless comic relief and is asked to hit the same comedic notes over and over again.
Nicole A. Watson’s greatest achievement here are the scenes between Vera and Bulrusher. Tyson and Johnson have a chemistry that’s a pleasure to watch, and the queer tenderness fostered between their characters feels so, so delicate. Even in moments of intense intimacy, Watson adds layers of abstraction: Katherine Freer’s projection designs immerse the set with waves and stars, and Tyson and Johnson develop a dissociative stillness after key lines. These choices are a fantastic way of making the audience feel the painful rupture of Vera and Bulrusher’s identities, in the midst of their ecstasy with each other.
This production’s tranquil but anxious mood dampens the show towards the end. Bulrusher’s plot is sometimes superfluous to its lyrical setting and characters, so Watson struggles to make the character’s choices feel impactful. During a climactic scene at a cliffside, the audience I was with watched silently: we had been lulled into a contemplative daze. Important plot points slipped into this production’s murky waters and vanished. I wish there was more of a splash.
Still, a reverie can be just as intense as a confrontation. Especially for queer and mixed race audience members like myself, Bulrusher stages a familiar, unnerving adolescence, one where you realize who you are through other people. So much of “representation matters” discourse centers around the idea of joy: once marginalized groups finally see ourselves in media, we’ll happily realize our existence is possible. Stories like Passing and Bulrusher complicate this narrative. Sometimes, seeing yourself in a mirror makes you want to shatter it. Staging Bulrusher offers an even more surreal experience; when you sit in a theater expecting to see a mirror of yourself, perhaps you’ll find your actor watching your face just as intently. Your reflection is uncontrollable, elusive, and independently alive.
This production of Bulrusher comes at an interesting time in the play’s history. While Bulrusher has garnered academic attention, the show is rarely produced. Playwright Paula Vogel has probably been its greatest champion. In 2018, Vogel called the play “one of the greatest reads in my life”; she helped produce a 2020 staged reading; Vogel even shared online that the 2007 Pulitzer Prize jury (of which she was a member) voted for Bulrusher to win the award.
After it was released, Passing failed to launch the career of Nella Larsen; she left the literary establishment and spent most of her life working as a hospital nurse. It was only decades later that readers reappraised Passing as a forgotten masterwork. Now, Eisa Davis has built a successful career since writing Bulrusher. But let’s not wait decades to call Davis’ play what it is: a theatrical masterwork, one that this McCarter production explored in strained but often extraordinary methods. If you dare to match Davis’ gaze, you’ll stare into her dizzying world for a long, long time.
Bulrusher is in performance at Princeton, NJ’s McCarter Theatre Center through October 7. For tickets and more information, visit here.