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Rhythm, imagery and dialect: Playwright Sharon Bridgforth on ‘the bull-jean stories’

Set in the first half of the 20th century in the South, “the bull-jean stories,” now playing at Pillsbury House + Theatre,  is an unabashed celebration of female desire.

Aimee K. Bryant in a scene from “the bull-jean stories.”
Aimee K. Bryant in a scene from “the bull-jean stories.”
Photo by Bruce Silcox

The language in “the bull-jean stories,” now playing at Pillsbury House + Theatre, is thick with rhythm, imagery, slang and dialect. Set in the first half of the 20th century in the South, it’s sexy in its unabashed celebration of female desire. There is a poetry to playwright Sharon Bridgforth’s language. And yet, under the direction of Signe V. Harriday and performed by the versatile Aimee K. Bryant, you never lose sense of the story.

Bryant plays multiple characters in the play, based on Bridgforth’s 1998 novel of the same name. Sometimes she speaks the words of bull-jean herself, and sometimes the objects of bull-jean’s desire (often married women who can’t reciprocate the Black lesbian character’s full love). She also plays various people from bull-jean’s town narrating the story. Bryant’s voice and physicality bring these characters to life, drawing the audience into the character’s pursuit of love. Bryant also brings her marvelous singing voice to the role, performing a cappella in service of the narrative.

The “bull-jean stories” is the second of three productions Pillsbury House is producing featuring Bridgforth’s bull-jean character. The first took place in the fall — it was called “The bull-jean experience,” where Bridgeforth’s text was juxtaposed by a visual installation created by filmmaker Za’Nia Coleman, and live music created by Dameun Strange. “The bull-jean stories,” now playing, is a one-woman play, with Strange creating the sound design, and Tom Mays creating a vivid lighting design. In June, the theater will present “bull-jean/we wake” directed by Daniel Alexander Jones. That story takes place 22 years after the events of the bull-jean stories. Both of the texts were also published together in a book published last September by 53rd State Press.

Here’s a conversation with Bridgforth about the character of bull-jean, about writing “through” difficult times, and how the writer’s work fits into the context of “theatrical jazz,” a form written about by artist/scholar Omi Osun Joni L. Jones, who is Bridgforth’s partner. The conversation has been edited for length/clarity.

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Sheila Regan: bull-jean is a character who’s been with you for a long time. How did this character come to be?

Sharon Bridgforth: bull-jean started coming through me originally in around 1993. I used to have a touring company called The root wy’mn Theatre Company. Sonja Parks was a company member and performed the shows that featured this character. I was grieving the loss of my elders — a lot of the people older than my mom had passed. And I just was really wanting to kind of hear their voices.

I was also dealing with my own inability to choose love that was available for me. I kept being in the cycle of unrequited love. I finally realized I was choosing love that wasn’t available because I didn’t want to be available. I kind of wrote my way through that. And the end result was this book called the bull-jean stories, which was published in 1998, by Red Bone Press.

SR: When you were first working on this character, in what ways did Sonja Parks help develop the character?

Sharon Bridgforth
Sharon Bridgforth
SB: I very rarely assigned character voices. To me, it’s theatrical jazz — simultaneity, cacophony polyrhythms, multiple voices telling the story at the same time. It’s like layers of — to me — how Black people talk. It’s how I grew up receiving stories. I would hand Sonja the script and say, ‘What do you think?’ And then she would do things. And we would try that. And that’s how we did it. And so I was able to grow into myself as a writer that writes for performance because of my collaboration with Sonja.

SR: And are you a musician as well? How does jazz kind of come into your work?

SB: I’m not a musician. I wish I was. My daughter is an incredible singer, but I didn’t get that gene. The way I grew up hearing stories, people talked at the same time. They danced, they prayed, they cried, they cooked. It was a whole lot of things. That’s how I aspired to tell stories. My mom is from Memphis, my dad and my stepmom are from New Orleans, so I feel jazz in my soul.

SR: And how has it been seeing a different performer — Aimee K. Bryant — live out the character?

SB: I love it. Aimee Bryant is a gift, and Signe [Harriday] is a visionary. I’ve learned things about the piece that I didn’t know, so I feel giggly.

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SR: In June, Pillsbury House will present “bull-jean/we wake,” directed by Daniel Alexander Jones. Will that be a stylistically different piece?

SB: It’s gonna be incredibly different. The writing itself of the bull-jean stories is very straight-ahead blues. The writing of bull-jean/we wake is jazz for sure. Daniel Alexander Jones is visioning it as a ritual installation, and it will be very interactive, and it will take place in different parts of the building.

SR: We talked about theatrical jazz. What’s theatrical blues?

SB: Well, jazz comes from blues. So at the base of jazz is always blues. For me, the blues is holy and sacred and raucous and raunchy all at the same time. The blues to me, uses humor as medicine, and is transgressive in its joy, and in its capacity to pass on history and knowing. The blues uses silence. It is very loud in those silent spaces. In the bull-jean stories, there are some lines where maybe there’s only one word. But to get from that word to the next word — so much is said in all of that silence. And of course, Langston Hughes is my boyfriend. And he’s one of the ones that really helped me imagine how to put that on the page. That’s my aspiration.

SR: What are you working on after all this?

SB: I’m so grateful. I am a McKnight fellow. And I’m a core member at the Playwrights Center, so I’m actually going to come back in April and do some writing on a new thing. I don’t know what it is yet.

“The bull-jean stories” runs through Feb. 5 at Pillsbury House + Theatre ($5-$25). More information here.