Playbill | 2007.april.20
When David Lindsay-Abaire's Broadway play Rabbit Hole won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama on April 16, a big surprise was the Pulitzer Prize Board's decision to make the rare move of bypassing the jury's three nominated finalists and give the award to a fourth play. But perhaps more surprising was the relative obscurity of the three finalists, who beat out such Broadway shows as Spring Awakening, Grey Gardens, Radio Golf and The Little Dog Laughed. Who are these writers and what are their plays like?
Bulrusher by Eisa Davis had its world premiere at Urban Stages, directed by Leah C. Gardiner, in March 2006. A mixed review in The New York Times called it "an overly long and dense coming-of-age story" but said that the characters of "Bulrusher and Vera are drawn to each other emotionally and physically, and it is their moving scenes on the banks of the pebble-strewn river, well designed by Dustin O'Neill, that feel utterly true."
"I do think that it is amazing that the Pulitzer jury nominated these three plays that were so far off the money-making radar," says Davis. "That actually is an inspiration to a lot of playwrights that I've been hearing from especially writers of color and women writers who are very excited that two women of color can have plays that are poetically-driven be considered on such a national level," referring to herself and Hudes.
Davis says she has no hard feelings against Lindsay-Abaire, who is an alumnus of the prestigious playwright support organization New Dramatists, to which Davis and Hudes currently belong. Eckert's wife Ellen McLaughlin is also an alumnus.
One striking similarity among the three finalists is that they're all musicians and performers as well as writers. Davis is currently in rehearsal to perform in the musical Passing Strange at the Public Theater. She is also a singer-songwriter set to perform at Joe's Pub May 21 (she says her music is hard to describe but "minimalist soul" fits best).
Davis' play Bulrusher also has religious connections, as the title character is a girl found as an infant floating in a basket in the river, like Moses. Bulrusher is brought up by a teacher without knowing who her parents are and eventually begins to discover her African-American background.
Davis, who is African-American, lives in Brooklyn and grew up in Oakland and Berkeley, but since her childhood she has frequently traveled to the Mendocino, California area, which is where the play takes place, in 1955. The area is the source of the regional dialect used by the characters, known as Boontling.
Some aspects of the play relate to Davis' life, such as the fact that she grew up not knowing her father (but has since reunited with him). But the play mainly sprang from her imagination, inspired by a composer friend asking her to write eight poems set to a song cycle for piano and soprano. When she wrote the poems, "the entire skeleton of the play was revealed," she says.
"It almost fell out of me," says Davis of the play. "It just kind of moved with a sureness that I don't normally feel when I'm writing plays… I'm actually not surprised by being considered a finalist because I loved the play so much. But at the same time, of course, who am I? Nobody knows who I am, nobody really paid much attention to Urban Stages, and there are a thousand plays like this every year and I feel like in some ways I'm representing that."
She added, "There's just so much rejection in this field, and it's nice to have a good day."