Long itinerant but a survivor, the Congo Square Theatre Company has landed in the old Black Ensemble space at 4520 N. Beacon St. It feels like the right home, partly for matters of history (Black Ensemble Theatre and the Organic Theatre both thrived here in the past) and partly because this is one of those caldronlike theaters in Chicago that oozes community and shared experience.
Pegasus Players is here too. One hopes the space can be shared.
Bulrusher (played by the excellent Ericka Ratcliff) is the title character in Eisa Davis' play of the same name, and is also a survivor, having floated along the river in a basket as a babe. She landed in North Carolina, where she has been raised these last 18 years by a mostly white couple (played by Joe Zarrow and Elizabeth Laidlaw) in a kind of rural, isolated, secretive, multiracial bubble, protected from prejudice but also not equipped to deal with the eventual and inevitable confrontation with her own identity and sexuality. She has some fun with a white boy (played with chirpy veracity by the ever-youthful Courtney Crouse), but the pair do not know, really, what they are doing or where they are going.
The catalyst for Bulrusher's experiential rush, and the play as a whole, is a relationship Bulrusher develops with Vera (Tamberla Perry), a newly arrived young woman from the South with a very different youth. The two, both African-American, strike up a close, coming-of-age relationship. Bulrusher compromises some of her innocence for the wisdom of experience; Vera finds a safe place away from her world of hurt.
TaRon Patton, who is making her directing debut here, has some very fine actors in her Equity cast. Both Ratcliff and Perry are moving throughout (if a little old for these roles), and Laidlaw is typically enigmatic. And with the help of a resonant, watery set from Andrei Onegin, Patton crafts some beautiful visual moments. This piece has a genuinely haunting quality and an originality of expression that constantly keeps you interested in these characters and what awaits them in the future. This production feels like a labor of love for these performers, especially the women, and it drips with that kind of emotional commitment from actors (Adrian LaMonte Byrd rounds out the ensemble) with the chops to match the best in town.
But theater must tell a story, and that's where "Bulrusher" needs more work. It lacks narrative drive. The production settles too easily into repetitive rhythms, and more crucially, the stakes don't rise to a sufficiently dramatic crisis, even when Bulrusher is in the midst of one. The piece sits there, and its impulses feel sound, but awkward pauses assert themselves, and the production doesn't grab you by the throat as it surely could. It moves too slowly at times, and Patton only gets so far in really pulling the characters and their desires from the dense linguistic field around them. This is not an easy piece, although the rewards are beautiful. I suspect this show will improve as it goes.
"Bulrusher," which is a few years old but not well known, really is a meditation on how we find out who we are and what that does to us. It certainly set me off pondering how long one can protect children from the ugliness of the world, and whether that serves them. And it reminds us that some small communities can inure their loved ones against so much. Mostly, this well-acted production just now needs to connect back to the world outside — we readily lean into the piece, but it has to meet us halfway.
When: Through Nov. 25
Where: Congo Square at the Beacon Street Theater, 4520 N. Beacon St.
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Tickets: $35 at 773-296-1108 or congosquaretheatre.org