Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Where bull-jean stories follows a sequential narrative, and includes a number of colorful characters, female and male, each with distinctive personal qualities, bull-jean/we wake is an out-of-time experience, more ceremony than story, evoking bull jean and some of those whose lives crossed with hers, but from a vantage point set in the present, or perhaps even the future–the costumes (inventively designed by Amber Brown) have the look of leisure-wear for space travel, with A-line coats drawn at the collar but open in front, and lapels resembling large petals, as if the heads of the two actors are the buds of blossoming flowers.
Entering the theater, we hear the playwright's recorded voice reading a series of numbers–some whole numbers, some with decimal extensions. They are not in standard numerical order and pauses between each number suggest the speaker is waiting for something to occur before moving on to the next. On the wall at the rear of the stage is an assemblage of quadrilateral panels of different sizes, some flush with the wall, others protruding out a bit, some patterned, others textured. An old wooden trunk sits in the center of the stage, and on either end of the set a boulder protrudes from the ground, the latter suggesting we are outdoors. The house lights seem already dimmed by half as we are seated. Without further dimming, or any announcement or ceremony, the actor Aimee K. Bryant walks down the aisle and on to the stage, and thus we begin. Bryant is soon joined by Omi Osun Joni L. Jones, the other performer in the piece.
Bryant has been gathering up debris scattered on the floor–pinecones, perhaps some shells–and placing them in a see-through plexiglass box. When Jones arrives, she carries two jars, each filled with a brightly colored liquid. Jones opens the front of one of those quadrilateral panels, revealing a cabinet in which the jars are placed, as is Bryant's box, and a hand mirror retrieved. Jones and Bryant stand together, peering intensely into the mirror and declaring what they see and how they are seen. They each say, "I want you to see me," but in different ways. Bryant's statement conveys yearning, the scorch felt by someone who wants to be seen but is not. Jones' statement conveys pride, as if proclaiming that she is honoring those who are watching by allowing them to see her.
bull-jean/we wake continues in a series of scenes, each introduced with a number, again the recorded voice of the playwright. In each scene, objects are similarly retrieved from the cabinets built into the wall, to be played with, cradled, or meditated upon by Bryant and Jones. As they do so, they issue incantations about bull jean, about folks bull jean shared her world with, and about universal feelings that course through their veins as they did through bull jean's. In one case an antique, crank-up record player emits the music of a wailing, old soul blues singer, the scratches on the old record paying honor to the tenacity of the singer who can still express her truth a hundred or so years after she began. Movement is another key part of the ceremony carried out by the two women, their bodies undulating in deliberate rhythms. In some sequences, light and sound pours creating physical phenomena like winds that the two performers brace themselves against.
Throughout, Jones' response to the objects drawn from the cabinets to the elements of nature, and the words that reveal the life of the heart appears to come more easily, as if her relationship with her past and present are a source of pleasure, while Bryant seems often to struggle with those same stimuli, at one time exhibiting spasms as if trying to exorcise memories and messages from within. Nonetheless, the ceremony, which runs no more than 50 minutes, spirals slowly but steadily toward a place of joy that embraces both women. The audience is asked to participate with a bit of call-and-respond, and later several audience members receive cards to read from, bringing more voices into the swirl of the event, and by its conclusion both the performers and the audience have access to the state of awareness called for in the title: "we wake."
Bryant and Jones both perform with authenticity, creating a sense that they are not "acting out" their parts, but experiencing them. Daniel Alexander Jones directs bull-jean/we wake, maintaining slow but steady pacing throughout. The enigmatic set design is by Andrea Heilman, the fanciful props are the creations of Kellie Larson, the evocative lighting design is by Wu Chen Khoo, and the expert sound design and composition are the work of Peter Morrow. The entire production comes across as a singular piece, in which it is difficult to separate the contributions of writer, performers, director and designers from one another. The result has the synergistic effect of making the totality of bull jean/we woke greater than the sum of its parts.
Those who need theater to tell a story or offer distinct characters might choose to stay clear of bull-jean/we wake. I cannot in truth describe it as entertaining. However, "entertainment" is not always what we need. I absolutely can describe bull-jean/we wake as beautiful, poignant, mesmerizing, and saturated with feeling. I walked away with a sense that something very deep within had been touched, something that was part and parcel of Bull-Dog Jean LaRue's daily life but is almost always buried beneath the detritus of twenty-first century living.
bull-jean/we wake runs through July, 2, 2023, at the Pillsbury House Theatre, 3501 Chicago Avenue South, Minneapolis MN. Regular price tickets are $25, Pick-your-price tickets are $5 to $24. For tickets and information, please call 612-825-0459 or visit pillsburyhouseandtheatre.org. Facial masks are required.
Playwright: Sharon Bridgforth; Director: Daniel Alexander Jones; Assistant Director: Kaelani Burja; Scenic Design: Andrea Heilman; Costume Design: Amber Brown; Composer and Sound Design: Peter Morrow; Light Design: Wu Chen Khoo; Prop Design: Kellie Larson; Dramaturgs: Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Talief Ticker; Technical Director: William Slayden; Technical Coordinator: Katie Deutsch; Stage Manager: Tierra Anderson; Assistant Stage Manager: Kenna Cottman; Assistant Production Manager: Alexi Carlson.
Cast: Aimee K. Bryant, Omi Osun Joni L. Jones