You can hardly turn a page of Pillsbury House Theatre’s press kit for Bulrusher without being reminded that playwright Eisa Davis was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. This leaves you looking forward to some remarkable scripting. However, I wound up thinking that if this is the caliber of talent they’re nominating these days, the Pulitzer folk should take a harder look the rest of what’s out there. If they really can’t come up with anything better, they should just take a year or two off from handing the award out. Woefully stilted from first word to last, Davis’s static saga of self-worth and identity isn’t much more interesting than watching paint dry.
Bulrusher, a play written by Eisa Davis and directed by Marion McClinton. Presented through June 14 at Pillsbury House Theatre, 3501 Chicago Ave., Minneapolis. For tickets and information, call (612) 825-0459.
Meet the characters: Bulrusher, a slightly daft, very good-hearted young woman who has just turned 18; Vera, about the same age, who is on the run from life at home; Madame, running a whorehouse with one hand, trying to have a life with the other; her happy-go-lucky suitor Logger; her glum would-be suitor Schooch (also Bulrusher’s keeper); and Boy, a terminally hormonal young man. None of these loosely sketched characters has a single thing to do with any of the others—the only reason they interact is because Davis tells them to. Hence, we get a stillborn story that goes absolutely nowhere and takes two-plus hours to get there. Along the way, each character speaks in poetic phrases and takes his or her turn to lapse into ersatz soliloquy. Bulrusher, in particular, gets to do it time and time again.
To make matters worse, the climax is littered with histrionics and last-minute exposition that’s supposed to pass for dramatic tension. As subtext, there’s a lot of reference to racism of the day (1950s) and how it makes tragic circumstance of what should be life lived to the best of one’s abilities. This is a cheap trick that falls flat. So is the shallow of device of having two women begin to fall in love, only to have one snatched from the other’s life. Davis has trotted out lesbianism as nothing more than window dressing, shoddy sensationalism meant to tug at the heartstrings. Dragging in the murder of Emmett Till as cloying backdrop to this witless melodrama is an insult to the memory of the Civil Rights era.
Tony Award nominee Marion McClinton directs, and Seitu Jones provides a striking set. As Bulrusher, Christiana Clark almost makes a lie of that old saying about a sow’s ear. She can’t salvage the material, but she sure burns up a lot of engaging energy, carrying the play on the sheer strength of her stage presence—as do Jodi Kellogg (Madame) and Sonja Parks (Vera). The rest of the cast give performances as pedestrian as the play itself.
Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.