It’s not every day that you discover a new American dialect. But if you see Bulrusher, by Eisa Davis, at the Pillsbury House Theatre, that’s what you’ll find—along with some fine acting and an interesting new play penned by the niece of 1960s peace activist Angela Davis.
The play takes place in Boonville, a small town in northern California’s Anderson Valley, near Mendocino, where a peculiar slang called Boontling is spoken. The cool thing about Boontling—as opposed, say, to the made-up jargon tossed around in Diablo Cody’s Juno—is that it’s a genuine form of American speech developed by immigrant German farm workers in that region of California during the late 1800s and early nineteenth century. When the residents of Boonville are “harpin’ the ling,” they are speaking the language of their ancestors and, in a way, flashing a kind of linguistic tattoo that identifies them as true locals.
The words of Boontling are like nothing you’ve ever heard before. An applehead is a girl, gorm is food, lizzied means pregnant, moldunes are breasts, a sneeble is a black person—and the program includes about a hundred other expressions and euphemisms, many of them having to do with sex, body parts, bodily functions, and various forms of gossip. All of which is understandable, because there doesn’t appear to be anything else to do in that part of the world except pick fruit, drink, have sex, and talk.
The play itself takes place in 1950s, when Boontling is on the wane and more educated members of the community, like the schoolteacher Schooch (the boontling term for schoolteacher), have begun discouraging their children to harp the local ling, lest it trap them there forever. Bulrusher is the name of a young black girl that Scoolch raised from an infant, after she was found by locals floating in the reeds down by the river, “just like Moses.” Scoolch doesn’t allow Bulrusher to speak Boontling at home, but this turns out to be not just an elitist preference on his part—it’s also a symbolic way of protecting Bulrusher from the history of the region and the coarseness of the locals, both of which figure heavily in Bulrusher’s mysterious past.
Pillsbury House’s production is only the third time Bulrusher has ever been performed (it was short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize last year), and director Marion McClinton is on record as saying that it’s the most important play he’s read since August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. That’s overstating the case a bit, but playwright Eisa Davis has clearly studied her August Wilson and has crafted this play in a way that uses many of Wilson’s favorite devices (which Wilson borrowed from Milton, Homer, and Shakespeare, but that’s another story). Watch Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean (at the Guthrie) and Bulrusher back to back and you’ll see what I mean. Both plays feel on the surface like a series of slice-of-life vignettes, but build to a powerful psychological climax that explains the characters’ peculiar behavior and grounds them in the context of a brutal and ultimately undeniable history.
With solid performances all around, especially by Christiana Clark as Bulrusher and James Williams as Lucas, Bulrusher offers an interesting take on the black experience in America. Bulrusher is black, but lives in Mendocino County, where she is one of the few black people in the entire valley, so her experience of racism is completely different from that of her friend Vera, who comes from Alabama (the play’s most contrived conceit, and one August Wilson would have deleted in a nanosecond).
Some reviewers have complained that Bulrusher is hard to follow because there’s so much Boontling slang, but I found it easy enough to get the gist from the context, and found it no different from seeing something by Shakespeare, say, that uses unfamiliar expressions, or running into words in a book of which you don’t know the exact meaning.
You may not know what “bilchin’” or “ricky chow” are going in, but by the time you leave, it won’t matter—you’ll just be impressed by another well-done play at Pillsbury House.
Bulrusher continues at the Pillsbury House Theatre through June 14,.