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Bulrusher at Congo Square Theatre

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Congo Square Theatre. By Eisa Davis. Dir. TaRon Patton. With Ericka Ratcliff, Tamberla Perry. 2hrs 35mins; one intermission.

Eisa Davis set her 2006 work in the Northern California town of Boonville, where the residents speak an invented dialect called Boontling. Not that the New York–based playwright-actor makes that real-life condition clear in her script. When new arrival Vera (Tamberla Perry) finally asks Bulrusher (Ericka Ratcliff) why everyone’s using these made-up words, you’re likely to feel her frustration.

The language isn’t the only flight of fancy in the piece, set in 1955. Bulrusher is an orphan who was found floating downriver in a basket, like Moses, which gives her a kind of clairvoyant ability to read people’s futures through water. Though she’s at least partly black, she’s treated with such acceptance by her white neighbors that she barely knows what that means until the appearance of Vera, the first girl Bulrusher’s seen who looks like her. Vera comes from Birmingham with secrets of her own, searching for an uncle and bearing Jet magazines and tidings of the rocky racial landscape.

The idea of Bulrusher as both a seer and an innocent, protected from the harsh truths of the larger world, is intriguing, and Ratcliff is thoroughly compelling in her portrayal of the girl taking ideas from her new friend and trying them on like clothes. But the characters and circumstances surrounding these two are less convincing in Davis’s script, funny words or no.

Time Out Chicago issue no. 403, November 15–21, 2012