Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

the bull-jean storiesPillsbury House + Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent reviews of The Girl on the Train, Hairspray and Lorna Landvik: Pages and Stages

Aimee K. Bryant
Photo by Bruce Silcox
Writer Sharon Bridgforth has carved out a varied career as an award-winning writer of plays and essays, a performance artist, and an academic, all of her work revolving around her perspective as an out, queer Black woman. Throughout her career, she has had a multitude of artistic homes, including Chicago and Austin. The Twin Cities has also surely provided a base, if not a home, for Bridgforth, as she has worked with the Walker Art Center, Penumbra Theatre, and Pangea World Theatre and has been a Playwrights' Center Core Member since 2020. In 2018, her acclaimed play dat Black Mermaid Man Lady received its world premiere at Pillsbury House + Theatre.

Bridgforth is back at Pillsbury House + Theatre, with three events offered over the course of the 2022-2023 season. The current four-week run of her one-act play, the bull-jean stories, is the second of those events, following last fall's the bull-jean experience, a multi-media introduction to the world of bull-jean, with the world premiere of her play bull-jean/we wake scheduled for this spring. It is an immersion into a world that embraces contradictions, being both tender and tough, ethereal and grounded in the dirt, laughing and weeping–all beneath a banner proclaiming the authority of love above all else.

While the bull-jean stories was published in 1998, its stories about Bull-Dog Jean LaRue, described in the promotional materials as "a woman-loving woman" in the rural south during the 1920s, still resonates with a balance of strength and compassion. The spellbinding solo performance by Aimee K Bryant beautifully, forcefully conveys bull-jean's determination to bring honest, authentic love into her life, and the pride that will not allow her to accept any cheap substitutes. Bull-jean lives in small communities where everyone knows everyone and their business, but she doesn't hide from the glare of public scrutiny. Why is she called bull-dog-jean? She tells us thusly:

"na/I's a wo'mn
what's Lovved many wy'mns.
Me/they call bull-dog-jean I say
that's cause I works like somekinda old dog trying to git a bone or two
they say it's cause I be sniffing after wy'mns
down-low/begging and thangs
whatever." *

Bull-jean has a solid, commendable explanation for the name that has been given to her by the world, that being her tenacity and perseverance. But if the world has another explanation, that's fine. She can own that too, without shriveling back. When Bryant utters that "whatever" at the end of that speech, she conveys a survivor's wisdom. She knows who she is and has no need to squabble with those who see her differently. She just wants to get on with living the life of bull-dog-jean.

And she is tenacious, going from one woman to the next, generally women who are miserably with a man. She brings joy and respite to those women, but when her heart is broken, she moves on and tries anew. Bryant instills each new possibility with the fresh zest of a first love, the dizziness of finding the sweet center of the world, but never allows bull-jean to come across as a patsy. She knows what she is risking, and is willing to take the risk, because, while it is good it is so good, and perhaps one of these times it will last. If not, she straights up her face and carries on. Bryant also handily takes on other characters in bull-jean's orbit, folks with names like Sassy B Gonn, Tillecous Loufina Johnson, and her next-door neighbor Pontifacuss Divine Johnson, each with a personality as unique as their name.

Signe V. Harriday directs the piece, keeping Bryant moving, making use of set pieces of all wood designed by Mina Kinukawa–a raised platform outfitted with a sewing machine for the interior of a house, a ladder that is constructed in the course of the evening, a rope swing that she lowers from above, a wooden rocking chair–to convey movement in bull-jean's journey of the heart. Tom Mays provides evocative lighting and Dameun Strange provides music and other sound accompaniments that help tell bull-jean's story. Amber Brown's costume for bull-jean seems completely fitting, mannish suit pants and vest, a tailored button-down shirt, a necktie sometimes added, and a tank top beneath the shirt that in one startling scene is revealed, as bull-jean reveals the vulnerability she otherwise so successfully keeps deeply hidden.

the bull-jean stories is a slight piece, but beautifully and lovingly rendered. The text and the performance combine to create a striking impression of the bull-dog-jean as a character, but also of the rare generosity that love makes possible.

the bull-jean stories runs through February 5, 2023, at Pillsbury House + Theatre, 3501 Chicago Avenue South, Minneapolis MN. Regular-price tickets are $25.00, Pick-your-price tickets are $5.00 to $24.00. For tickets and information, please call 612-825-0459 or visit Facial masks are required.

Playwright: Sharon Bridgforth; Director: Signe V. Harriday; Set Design: Mina Kinukawa; Costume Design: Amber Brown; Composer and Sound Design: Dameun Strange; Light Design: Tom Mays; Prop Design: Abbee Warmboe; Technical Director: Claudia Errickson; Production and Stage Manager: Elizabeth R. MacNally; Producing Directors: Signe V. Harriday and Noël Raymond.

Cast: Aimee K. Bryant (bull-dog-jean and others).

*text from the bull-jean stories, Sharon Bridgforth, RedBone Press, 1998.