Director sees heart, hope and new era in ‘Bulrusher’

Courtesy of the Pillsbury House Theatre

Director Marion McClinton thinks an end is near to the cynicism that has plagued the United States for the past few decades, and he sees this change clearly in Eisa Davis’ recent play, “Bulrusher.”

The work drew St. Paul native McClinton, who has directed around the country and has a Tony nomination to his credit, to the Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis, where Davis’ play (a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer for drama) is making its area debut.

“It’s not a cynical play at all,” McClinton says. “It is a play that is about the possibility of love and what it can do for people, and how it changes us for the better. And sometimes when you are working in the theater, in black theater, you will get a play that the audience can laugh at and relax and see themselves in the characters. I see it ultimately as a show that celebrates the joy of being a human being.”

Set in an isolated town north of San Francisco during the 1950s, “Bulrusher” explores the story of a young African-American woman who was abandoned as an infant by a river and who can read the future of others. It isn’t until a visitor from Alabama comes to the community that Bulrusher, the main character, begins to understand her own history.

One unique feature of Davis’ script is the language. The residents of Boonville have developed their own way of speaking, called boontling, which can isolate outsiders — or theater audiences. McClinton had planned time in the rehearsal process to address this issue until he began to work with his veteran cast.

“These are actors who have performed Shakespeare. If they can do Shakespearean language and have an audience understand, they can do this. It does take the audience a little bit to get into the show, but it’s like watching a movie with subtitles. After a while, you are not aware you are reading subtitles.”

A play about possibilities
For McClinton, the language is only part of the beauty in Davis’ play. Much of the rest goes back to the lack of cynicism. “The play is about the possibility of love; what more beautiful thing could you visit for two hours or so?”

McClinton sees an overall change in our society, one illustrated by the political rise of U.S. Sen. Barack Obama. “He’s the herald of an America where the questions of race, and who you are as an American, are starting to be different. He is likely to be the Democratic nominee for president. That changes the discussion of race — there is no way that it could not.”

Davis also journeyed through the same America in the latter part of the 20th century and has come up with a new way — or would that be an old way? — of looking at the world.

“Instead of being a reflection of life, (art) became a cynical view of life. So this play is extremely important. It’s not a play that is overwhelmed by its own cynicism. The great writers do that — Shakespeare, Chekhov, August (Wilson) — they all realize that the fact that they exist tells us there is possibility of hope over the inevitably of cynicism. That is something I’d rather teach my son.”

And this is something that McClinton hopes more artists, and politicians, will take to heart. It is something he plans to do with his own plays in progress.

“I can’t describe the pleasure of working on a play that is this beautiful. It changes what I am looking to do as an artist with my own plays and what I want to direct. I think this is a time for beauty in American society. I think we have deserved it for a long time. I find that to be the most thrilling thing. It changed how I viewed my art and what my art should be about and what I want to share with the audience.”

What: Bulrusher
When: Through June 14
Where: Pillsbury House Theatre, 3501 Chicago Ave. S., Minneapolis
Tickets: $18 for adults; $13 for seniors and students
Phone: 612-825-0459
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