Whenever I go to see a show at the Ashby Stage, I feel as if I am entering a parallel universe. Located across the street from the Ashby BART station in one of the less salubrious corners of Berkeley, the home of Shotgun Players is an unexpected oasis in the middle of a concrete-and-exhaust-fume desert. From the beacon-like light bulbs on the marquee to the show-inspired exhibitions and decor in the theater's lobby, it's impossible not feel instantly transported into the world of the play.
The sensation of crossing over into a different landscape at this theater has never felt stronger for me than with the company's current production of Bulrusher, the 2007 Pulitzer Prize-nominated drama by playwright and Berkeley native Eisa Davis. It's not just that the lobby is decked out to look like the old time rural West with bits of sun-bleached wood paneling, stained-glass windows, tree-branches, and a homey porch swing draped with a Sunday dress and straw hat. It's that Davis and Shotgun create an environment so cloistered that contemporary life seems entirely remote.
Set in 1955, Bulrusher takes place during one of the most turbulent periods in modern American history. August 1955 saw the widely publicized murder of black teenager Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi, for allegedly whistling at a white woman. An all-male, all-white jury subsequently acquitted Till's two white assailants. That December, the civil rights movement moved into a higher gear when black activist Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama. Two days later, the Montgomery bus boycott began, forcing the desegregation of public transportation. All of this happened against a backdrop of growing anticommunist sentiment and the rise of rock 'n' roll.
These escalating tensions, at least on the surface, couldn't be further removed from the world of Davis' play. Somehow the sleepy hamlet of Boonville, California (located in Mendocino County, for those among us who tend to glimpse such places only in our rear-view mirrors at 70 mph) is seemingly impervious to the sociopolitical battles raging beyond its borders. Blacks and whites apparently coexist in perfect harmony, even though the town is predominantly white. No one appears to bat an eyelid when a white boy asks a black girl out. Logger, a local black man, can walk into the white-run town brothel and sleep with whomever he likes.
At the center of Davis' secluded universe is Bulrusher, a young black woman with mysterious powers. Rescued as a baby from the Navarro River, Bulrusher (the local slang for an illegitimate child) leads a kind of charmed existence. Independent, self-confident, and more-or-less treated by respect by the community, she spends her days selling fruit, looking after Scoolch, the old schoolteacher who brought her up, and communing with nature. Bulrusher has a particularly strong relationship with water. She can tell people's fortunes by examining a single droplet of their sweat, or the remnants of their coffee cups.
When Vera, Logger's pretty niece, turns up one day from faraway Alabama, Bulrusher's life changes completely. Vera is as much shocked by Bulrusher's complete obliviousness to racial difference as Bulrusher is by Vera's fear of white men, yet the two become fast friends. As their intimacy grows, the teenagers learn some wonderful and awful truths about themselves, each other, and the changing world in which they live.
Davis chiefly creates her secret world through the use of Boontling, the town's archaic dialect, which was once commonly used in the small farming community. The language of the play is like dense vines screening the side of an old house or a deep river flowing fast over stones. She mixes terms like “doolsey boo” (sweet potato), “can-kicky” (angry), and “lews 'n' larmers” (gossip) with fecund poetry such as “I float in a basket toward the Pacific, hands blue as huckleberries. This air is too sweet, this cold water a thin, foul milk.” Davis' text is at first tricky to keep up with, evasive even, but the words themselves are so tactile and enticing that one soon becomes enshrouded in a Boontling cocoon.
The playwright similarly conveys the otherworldliness of Boonville through the sharply defined characters, who, as outsider Vera quickly discovers, don't act as other people do. Bulrusher herself is hardly typical of a black girl growing up in 1950s America. As portrayed by the quirky-looking Kirya Traber, she totes a rifle, swigs beer, drives a rickety pickup truck, runs a successful business, and is cheerfully rude to those who bug her, whatever the color of their skin. When a white boy makes shy advances, she tells him in no uncertain terms to leave her alone: “Just 'cause it's the Fourth of July don't mean we gotta talk,” she archly tells her tongue-tied suitor.
In a production expressively codirected by Margo Hall and Ellen Sebastian Chang, Shotgun Players turns the Ashby Stage into something akin to a Mendocino Land That Time Forgot. Kevin Keul and Lili Smith's elaborate lobby installation draws us towards a private universe, and Lisa Clark's lost kingdom of a set design deposits us right there with no breadcrumb trail to find our way out. With its layers of wooden decking, secluded corners shaded by thick foliage, trickling waterways, and rusty truck, there's something almost Disneyland-like about the scenery. Self-absorbed, often introverted performances from the cast work with the setting to create an experience that feels entirely intimate.
As the play progresses, reality increasingly disrupts the secret theatrical landscape. The narrative becomes increasingly melodramatic as we discover the truth about Boonville's less-than-harmonious past, Bulrusher's own lineage, and her sexual awakening. The heavy-handed plotting reveals some hard political and social realities about life in even the most apparently benign of communities, and the pleasure and pain of discovering one's identity for the first time. But it also inadvertently swallows the muscular cadences of the local patois and turns what was at the start of the play an extraordinary set of characters and circumstances into ordinary fare by the end.
Even though the destruction of Bulrusher's precious secluded quality ultimately works against it, experiencing Davis' drama in the wake of recent news headlines has forced me to examine my highly closeted understanding of race relations in this country today. Events like the September 20 rally in Jena, Louisiana, to protest the trial of the six black teenagers accused of beating a white student following racial tensions at the local high school make me realize that I've been living in my own private Boonville – a sunny place in California where people mostly get on with each other – for way too long. The news, like Davis' play, reminds us that the work of the civil rights movement is far from over. It's time to emerge from the sacred space and walk the streets again.