Theater Review: Ensemble, set of ‘Bulrusher’ make for satisfying production

Iman Childs, Columnist

“Bulrusher,” a 2007 Pulitzer-nominated drama by Eisa Davis, follows Bulrusher, played by Ericka Ratcliff, a young black girl who is found floating in a basket along a river in a northern Californian town and is subsequently saved and raised by Schoolch, played by Joe Zarrow, a white teacher. The protagonist, who is 18 years old when the play begins, is unique because she is clairvoyant — she can see a person’s future if she touches water they have also touched.

The naive Bulrusher befriends Vera, played by Tamberla Perry, a black girl her age who traveled to town from Birmingham, Ala., to visit her uncle. Through their new-found friendship, Bulrusher discovers the meaning of race and sex in society, as well as the consequences of rape. Her connection with Vera, which initially stems from Bulrusher’s ability to identify with Vera because she is black, develops into romance and love.

If this sounds like a lot of moving parts for one play, you wouldn’t be wrong. However, Davis competently weaves almost all of these elements into the main thread — Bulrusher’s self-discovery. By the end of the play, though, Davis seems unable to provide an explanation for the girls’ lesbian romance and rushes to complete the identity portion of the tale with a neat ending.

Nonetheless, the acting and set emphasized the beautiful language of the play. The magnificent set by Andrei Onegin featured a shallow pond, reeds and a boardwalk style wooden ramp. Tasteful background projections surprisingly did not distract from the scene, but rather added to the serenity of the natural setting. These two elements, combined with excellent lighting design that imitated sunlight scattered with shadows of leaves, made Bulrusher’s monologues to the river the most stunning visuals in the production.

Overall, the entire ensemble was superb, particularly Ratcliff and Perry. Ratcliff, who is in her late 20s, convincingly plays Bulrusher with just the right amount of innocence. She also accomplishes the difficult task of making Bulrusher’s gift believable and the character as a whole relatable. Perry conveys Vera’s sass and worldliness as well as her vulnerability, preventing the character from being reduced to the city-girl trope. Together their acting makes the relationship between Vera and Bulrusher touching and tender, reminiscent of an adolescent’s first love. In the same manner, Adrian LaMonte Byrd manages to make the Logger likable and good-hearted, despite his daily trips to the town brothel, and we root for him when he decides to propose to the brothel owner, Madame, played by Elizabeth Laidlaw.

Although the plot lulls at moments and the play’s moving parts can at times seem like too much, the acting, set and timeless theme of discovering one’s identity make “Bulrusher” a satisfying production.

This production of “Bulrusher” by Congo Square Theatre Company, an award-winning African-American theatre ensemble, will run at the Beacon Street Theatre until Nov. 25.