Critic's Choice

'Bulrusher,' a Pulitzer finalist, is given a mesmerizing L.A. premiere

'Bulrusher': Gifted ensemble handles poetic language of Pulitzer finalist in play's L.A. premiere

The Los Angeles premiere of 2007 Pulitzer finalist “Bulrusher,” presented by Skylight Theatre Company and Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble, is a sometimes undisciplined outpouring that can frustrate and fascinate in equal measure. Nevertheless, director Nataki Garrett's precisely rendered staging of Eisa Davis' flawed but remarkable play unfolds with a mesmeric leisureliness, taking on the power and potency of myth. 

The action, set in 1955, transpires in the real-life Northern California town of Boonville, known for its indigenous language, Boontling, a colorful patois liberally sprinkled throughout the play. 

The setting may be real, but the inhabitants of Davis' world are notably folkloric. The infant Bulrusher was rescued, Moses-like, from the nearby river by Logger (Joshua Wolf Coleman), one of the few men of color in this white enclave. 

The mixed-race Bulrusher (Bianca Lemaire), now a teen with witch-like powers of clairvoyance, has been raised by white schoolteacher Schoolch (Warren Davis). Schoolch and Logger are gentlemanly rivals for the apparently white bordello proprietor, Madame (Heidi James), once Logger's lover -- a liaison that ruffled no feathers in this remarkably egalitarian community. Accepted, also, is Bulrusher's wooing by a white youth, Boy (Patrick Cragin), Bulrusher's childhood tormentor turned ardent suitor.

However, when Vera (Chauntae Pink), Logger's niece, arrives from Alabama, she brings home the horrors of the recent Emmett Till atrocity -- a shock for these familial folk. A battered survivor of Jim Crow, Vera becomes the object of the innocent Bulrusher's romantic fascination as the teen struggles to come of age. 

The superb production elements, particularly David B. Marling's splendid sound, evoke the requisite mysticism of this exotic milieu, while the uniformly gifted ensemble handles Davis' lushly poetic language with a bracing matter-of-factness that eliminates any vestige of the twee. Most strikingly, Garrett's rigorous direction keeps Davis' unlikely but captivating tale moored in reality. This Boonville and these characters may never have actually existed, but we certainly wish they had.  

“Bulrusher,” Skylight Theatre, 1816 ½ N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 28. $30. (213) 761-7061. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times