Dear struggling young American playwright,
Please go see the Congo Square Theatre production of Bulrusher. Eisa Davis’s 2007 Pulitzer Prize finalist exemplifies three of the biggest mistakes you’ve been making for too long. Once you see that even a handsomely designed, intelligently acted staging can’t turn a script riven with these mistakes into anything more than a soggy, static, intermittently diverting evening, perhaps you’ll cut out this nonsense for good.
Mistake #1: Attempting to make your characters, setting, and/or story offbeat generally makes them implausible.
Davis sets her play in northern California’s isolated Anderson Valley in 1955. We know it’s 1955 because news of Emmett Till’s murder is in the current issue of Jet magazine. We know it’s Anderson Valley because Davis’s characters utter bits of Boontling, a highly idiosyncratic dialect peculiar to the region. Though we’re well into the buttoned-up Eisenhower era, the town’s whorehouse is so highly respected that Schoolch, the local schoolteacher, can pass his days sipping tea with the establishment’s madame, Madame, and still keep his job. Racism has apparently gone on holiday, too: Madame happily welcomes the town’s only African-American adult, Logger, as a regular. In fact, Logger and Madame were once lovers, and may be lovers again, and that raises not a single eyebrow.
According to Logger the town was integrated a few decades ago, before excessive logging denuded the local terrain and black workers moved on. Like every resident we meet, he reports no history of racial tensions there. (In reality, the valley-area community of Navarro was divided into mostly white Mill Town and mostly Italian Dego Town).
The other African-American resident is Bulrusher, an 18-year-old clairvoyant who talks to the Navarro River in free verse and makes good money selling truckloads of oranges, although she doesn’t own an orchard. She says she could just as easily sell lemons or, um, northern California pineapples.
As a baby, Bulrusher was set adrift on the river in a basket, where Schoolch found her and raised her as his own. Despite her ESP—she can read your future by touching water you’ve touched—Bulrusher is the consummate naif. She’s never heard of racial strife, much less jim crow. Hell, she doesn’t even know what a brassiere is. Yet when her cousin Vera arrives from Alabama and Bulrusher falls instantly in love, she somehow knows she mustn’t let others find out she’s got romantic feelings for another girl.
And so it goes. Please note, struggling young playwright, that almost none of the script’s strained oddness influences the drama in more than superficial ways. Even Bulrusher’s clairvoyance is an irrelevant flourish. Her story would be the same without it.
Mistake #2: Showing us what your characters are like isn’t the same as creating drama.
For almost the entire 70-minute first act of Bulrusher, Davis does little but demonstrate her characters’ immutable character traits. Madame is always a stern pragmatist hiding a broken heart. Bulrusher is always a headstrong ingenue. Schoolch is always a taciturn cipher with a heart of gold. Logger is always a lovelorn goof with a penchant for brushing women’s hair. Boy, a white teenager who does nothing but write songs and woo Bulrusher, is always a plucky romantic.
None of them faces a consequential choice. None of them has much at stake, even when Davis tries to engineer a crisis. Though Schoolch, for example, suffers an emotional meltdown late in the play, all he has to do to recover is screw a whore. Then he’s good to go.
Note well, struggling young playwright, that Vera is the only character not defined by a trait but by her predicament: her family sent her away after a white police officer raped and impregnated her. She faces many consequential choices, and her actions reveal her character. Not surprisingly, she’s the only dramatically credible character. (Aristotle knew a thing or two.)
Tellingly, Davis has no idea what to do with her. She sends Vera back to Alabama in the middle of act two, before she can make the life-altering choices that might produce some drama. What we get instead is an out-of-left-field confrontation between Bulrusher and her long-lost mother.
Mistake #3: Unless you’re Shakespeare, poetic monologues don’t forward the action. Plus, they usually sound silly.
Davis plants Bulrusher alone beside the Navarro River a good half-dozen times, giving her purple musings like, “Anything you’re scared of, the river holds for you,” and, “Forgiveness is an insect that may one day suck me dry.” Her monologues tell us little we don’t already know—or, for that matter, need to know.
All right, struggling young playwright, go see the play, learn your lessons, and make better plays. You don’t want to be a Pulitzer finalist, anyway.