Thursday, June 29, 2023

"bull-jean / we wake" at Pillsbury House Theatre

This season, Pillsbury House Theatre has been presenting work by playwright Sharon Bridgforth, whose play Dat Black Mermaid Man Lady / The Show they produced in 2018, about which I wrote "It's a piece that defies explanation, that maybe shouldn't be explained, but rather experienced." That description applied to their January production of the bull-jean stories, "a beautifully lyrical look at love and resilience through the lens of a Southern Black lesbian woman in the early 20th century," and even more so to the conclusion of this series. bull-jean / we wake is described on the website as "a new performance installation and invitation" that "envelopes the senses with incantations, memories, and future visions that invites audiences closer to their deepest questions and longings." It's more ritual than theater, and is a joyful and life-affirming experience. The short run concludes this weekend.

Aimee K. Bryant and Omi Osun Joni L. Jones (photo by Bruce Silcox)
The theater feels like a sacred space upon entering. A spiral of pinecones and other natural objects is laid out on the floor, and we hear a repeated sequence of numbers. The show begins when performers Aimee K. Bryant and Omi Osun Joni L. Jones enter the space, dressed all in white with an almost futuristic space looking coat. the bull-jean stories felt very grounded and earthy in design, but this feels like we're outside of time and place. We hear those numbers again, followed by a scene that could be poetry, or movement, or the performers reacting to a voiceover. Some of the stories include characters familiar from the bull-jean stories, bull-jean herself as well as her friends and her son, as well as references to dat black mermaid man lady. You certainly don't have to be familiar with these past works, but if you are, it feels like a nice wrapping up and coming together.

Aimee K. Bryant and Omi Osun Joni L. Jones (photo by Bruce Silcox)
The back wall of the theater is covered with large squares in seafoam green or pale blue, that open to reveal charming props like wooden spoons or parasols. The performers use these in some sort of ritualistic way. There are moments of interaction, with audience members being asked to hold things or read from cards, making us feel part of the ritual (if you're not comfortable with that, sit in the back and not on the aisles and you'll be safe). 

Director Daniel Alexander Jones brings the same soulful quality to this show as he did to his performance at Penumbra several years ago as his alter ego Jomama Jones. The 45-minute show feels mystical and dreamlike, like a healing balm if you open yourself up to it. The performers ground the experience in humanity; they aren't playing characters per se, but instead maybe represent all of us, or our guides through this journey. All elements of design support this dreamy ritual - costumes by Amber Brown that include some glorious colorful capes in addition to the chic white ensembles, the clean crisp scenic design by Andrea Heilman, the sweet props designed by Kellie Larson, evocative and ever-changing lighting by Wu Chen Khoo, and composition and sound design by Peter Morrow with recorded sounds and voices.

Like all of Sharon Bridgeforth's work, bull-jean / we wake defies description and must be experienced to know what it is. Only four more experiences remain (click here for info and tickets).