Illinois State University School of Theatre and Dance opens its second in-person production of the fall semester, Bulrusher by Eisa Davis. Performances are October 1, 2 , 5–9 at 7:30 p.m., and October 3 at 2 p.m. in Westhoff Theatre.
Found floating in a basket on the river as an infant, Bulrusher is an orphan with a gift for clairvoyance that makes her feel like a stranger even amongst the strange: the taciturn schoolteacher who adopted her, the madam who runs her brothel with a fierce discipline, the logger with a zest for horses and women, and the guitar-slinging boy who is after Bulrusher’s heart. Just when Bulrusher thought her world might close in on her, she discovers an entirely new sense of self when a black girl from Alabama comes to town. With an organic outdoor set and live music, this passionate and lyrical play will prove to be an unforgettable experience.
“This play will be one of the first plays people see after the pandemic,” director and M.F.A candidate Britannia Howe reveals. “I am excited that it is the play Bulrusher. This past year we have felt a great deal of loss from losing family members to death, health complications, and separation of friends. American citizens have confronted police violence and racism by marching and protesting in the United States in Black Lives Matter causes. And because of the pandemic, we have experienced economic turmoil. All these circumstances live within this play too.”
Bulrusher takes place in 1955, in the redwood country north of San Francisco, where a multiracial girl grows up in a predominately white town. Howe states, “There are minimal gestures of location, and we rely on the audience’s imagination to fill in the blanks as we use a table to resemble a truck, a table for a home, and a staircase for a brothel.” The costume and hair team has worked to create beautiful styles to highlight the time and place of the story.
At the heart of this play is a love story.
“Audiences are ready for a love story. They are ready to breathe and feel and empathize,” Howe says, adding that she is most excited for the audience and actor relationship in live theatre and that this play has a sense of wonder that the audience will really enjoy live. Howe explains, “Just as the characters are connected to each other in strange ways, the audience too will feel part of the connection by being in the space and experiencing it.”
Reworking intimate scenes and scenes where there is no dialogue but rather communication through a smile, a glance, or an interruption of breath has proven to be challenging due to the presence of masks. The staff and cast have been working together to produce creative solutions to these small problems.
For some cast members, this is their introduction to the School of Theatre and Dance stages, having experienced a full year immersed in virtual performances and remote, performance-based classes.
This is the case with sophomore acting major Andie Anderson, who plays the title role of Bulrusher. When asked about their experience working on the production Anderson says, “These past few years have been hard on every performer, truly testing a person’s dedication to their craft in the face of a worldwide social brick wall. I have been no stranger to this struggle, having taken my first year of acting classes here at ISU online (which makes the whole ‘immersion’ part of getting into a character absolutely impossible). Therefore, being cast in this fall’s production of Bulrusher as the title character came like a wrecking ball to the stagnation, I’d been near calcified into.”
Stepping back in person after a year online has reignited Anderson’s passion for performing.
“Having the opportunity to play Bulrusher has been a tremendous experience that pushed me back onto my creative feet. To be able to find myself over and over again on stage, to fall in love, to boil over with rage, to laugh, to cry, to move and breathe the poetic language of Eisa Davis—that has been the true magic of this production. I can personally relate to so much of what Bulrusher experiences and maneuvers throughout the show, but I believe it’s been the differences that have truly made the character come to life.”
One of those differences Anderson highlights is the unique language featured in the show.
“This show plays around with Boontling, a real jargon made up by the people of Boonville Northern California, and it has been quite the adventure unraveling the meaning of it all. From hobbin to Joe Mackin’, this, along with many others, wraps every inch of this show with a unique and expressive charm that I just can’t wait for audiences to experience.”
Tickets for Bulrusher can be purchased through the Center for the Performing Arts Box Office, Monday through Friday from 11 a.m.–5 p.m. in person or by phone at (309) 438-2535, and online through Ticketmaster. Tickets are $10 for students and $12 for adults. Masks will be required for the duration of the performance.