Reviewed by Deborah Klugman
At the Skylight Theatre
Through September 28
Eisa Davis’s drama about an 18-year-old motherless clairvoyant exhibits an element of magic that manifests most richly in this production’s opening moments.
The eponymous character (Bianca Lemaire) — so named because as an infant she was, like Moses, rescued from among the rushes — appears alone on stage, flooded with a cascade of light and imagery and reciting an ode to the river for which she has retained an intimate affinity. It’s a wonderfully sensory theatrical moment — the fruit of the combined talents of designers Hana S, Kim, Derrick McDaniel and David B. Marling (set/video, lighting and sound respectively). Unfortunately, neither the writing, the performances, nor Nataki Garrett’s direction come close to equaling it.
The story is set in Boonville, a small community in the Anderson Valley in Northern California where (historically) residents communicated in Boontling, a language they concocted for their own use, and which the playwright employs here and there to intensify the far-and-away aspects of her story. The year is 1955 – the year that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus and 14 year old Emmett Till was brutally murdered for “flirting” with a white woman.
Yet Bulrusher, a young woman of color, knows nothing of these events. She lives with Schoolch (Warren Davis), her white adoptive father, and spends a lot of time hanging around the reception area of a brothel, run by the business-like Madame (Heidi James), who is the love interest of both Schoolch and the only other person of color in the community, Logger (Joshua Wolf Coleman). Bulrusher has her own business selling fruit, and she’s known throughout the community for her soothsaying powers, which she cultivates using the medium of water.
Everything suddenly changes when she falls in love with Vera (Chauntae Pink), Logger’s niece, who shows up one day from Alabama, bearing the scars of a black person who’s grown up in the Jim Crow South. Bulrusher now has someone she wants to touch and take care of, but she also acquires a new belligerence and a hatred of white people. When, near the end, her biological mom makes an appearance, Bulrusher shoulders a rifle and vengefully threatens to shoot her, turning an improbable circumstance into an implausibly fantastical one.
Long before that, though, the play fails any credibility check. Its problems begin with the language, which carries the rhythms of a poetical work but lacks the vivid imagery of one, making it seem pretentious.
Then there’s the plot, which straddles the supernatural and the here-and-now, and succeeds in neither realm. Even the lesbian romance is abandoned in Act 2, which then takes an implausibly melodramatic turn.
While a strong ensemble might have weathered these shortcomings, it’s impossible to say for sure. Under Garrett’s direction, there’s not much sense of a connection among the characters, and certainly no visible heat among the three adults, even though they share an erotic history. Bulrusher’s relationship with Boy (a seemingly miscast Patrick Cragin), a white adolescent who pursues her throughout, is loud and superficial; a more sensitive rendering of that character would have been infinitely more interesting. On the other hand, Coleman, a fine actor, makes Logger genial to the point of dullness. Lemaire is outwardly appealing in the pivotal role, but she lacks the inner conviction that would have you caring about her.
Skylight Theatre, 1816 ½ Vermont Ave, Los Feliz; Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun. 3 p.m.; through Sept. 28. (213) 761-7061, http://skylighttix.com