The playwright Eisa Davis was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for drama for Bulrusher, her tale of a black woman living in an all-white California community in the 1950s. Davis has also acted in film, television, and on stage, and in 2008 she appeared in the acclaimed Broadway musical Passing Strange. "People talk about how much they've needed this story," Davis said in an interview with Felicia R. Lee of the New York Times about the up-tempo tale of a world-roaming black man. "All of us in this play have experienced the pain that's in this play: not being understood, not being able to fit in, not knowing where you are placed in all of the various cultures and culture wars that you live in."
Davis was born in the midst of a culture war herself in 1971. She was named Angela Eisa after her quite-famous aunt, Angela Davis, who was an assistant professor of philosophy and a member of the American Communist Party. A year before her niece's birth, the media-savvy radical activist was charged with aiding a daring courtroom jailbreak in the San Francisco Bay area. In that notorious event, the trial of two members of the Black Panthers was disrupted, several officials were taken hostage, and the judge in the case was killed—allegedly by a gun registered in Angela Davis's name. After two months on the run, she was captured and her case became an international cause célèbre. "Free Angela Davis" posters, featuring images of Davis's aunt with her trademark Afro, were a common sight in most counterculture establishments in the early 1970s, and both John Lennon and the Rolling Stones wrote songs about her plight.
A New York Times report by Barbara Campbell from January of 1971 noted that Angela Davis's sister, Fania, had dropped out of graduate school to lead a campaign for justice for her sister, and was five months pregnant at the time, too. Davis was born that May, a year before her aunt was acquitted on all charges of conspiracy in the courtroom plot. Fania Davis went on to law school and became a civil rights attorney and raised her daughter in the free-thinking city of Berkeley, California.
Graduated from Harvard
Davis emerged as artistically gifted at an early age. She began piano lessons at the age of six, took dance classes, sang in the church choir, and wrote plays, which she staged for her family and neighbors. At the age of nine, she made her actual stage debut at a Communist Party event, delivering a spoken-word piece taken from her aunt's 1974 memoir. "Even though those monologues were drawn directly from her autobiography, it was sort of this creation that I'd made and could share," Davis told Lori Ann Laster in an interview that appeared in American Theatre. "To not only have an audience of my family but a huge hall of people definitely made me catch the theatre bug."
Davis went on to Harvard University and studied there under the playwright Adrienne Kennedy, who urged Davis to mine her own unconventional life for her writing. After earning her undergraduate degree in 1992, Davis moved to New York City and pursued a master of fine arts degree from the Actors Studio, which was part of the New York City's New School for Social Research at the time. Hers was a double major, in playwriting and acting, and she began appearing in independent films and on television dramas such as Soul Food. Before her first play was produced, she had gained experience as an actor in off-Broadway plays.
In early 2001 Davis won a Van Lier Fellowship with New Dramatists, a New York City-based nonprofit center dedicated to nurturing the careers of new playwrights. She spent the next eighteen months crafting several works with the help of established mentors there. Some of the works that came to fruition as a result included Hip Hop Anansi, an urban folk tale that was produced in Maryland in 2006, and Warriors Don't Cry, based on the memoir of one of the nine African-American students at Little Rock's Central High School who had to be protected by federal troops from hostile Arkansas mobs enraged over the federal desegregation order in 1957. The latter play was produced at the Cornerstone Theater Company in Los Angeles in 2007.
Used Archaic Dialect
Davis's Bulrusher was first produced at Urban Stages, an off-Broadway venue, in March of 2006. It was not a musical, but it did feature some songs she had written for it, along with poetry. Its title character is an orphaned child who, like the biblical patriarch Moses, was plucked from the river, where she had been abandoned in a basket. Thus, Bulrusher, now eighteen, never knew her parents, but was raised by Schoolch, a loner schoolmaster in a small California community called Boonville in Mendocino County. The play takes place in 1955, on the very eve of the civil rights movement in the United States, but as its protagonist recounts, she lived in a color-blind community and did not even realize she was black until she was five years old. Boonville is an isolated place with a long history of wariness toward outsiders, and its denizens speak an odd dialect reflecting this voluntary segregation. Called Boontling, this dialect actually existed for generations in the Anderson Valley area of California, but had fallen into disuse by the time Davis wrote her play. "The idea that languages die is a little disheartening to me," she explained to Laster. "So Bulrusher—and pretty much all of my work, in some way—is trying to celebrate those languages that are disappearing."
The outside world intrudes on the community when Bulrusher meets a young woman who has recently come from strife-torn Birmingham, Alabama. Vera is astonished by the fact that the two women can enter a Boonville bar and enjoy a drink. In a San Jose Mercury News review of the play's run later in 2007 at Berkeley's Shotgun Players, the critic Karen D'Souza commended Davis's "new perspective on issues of cultural identity. She both keenly evokes the peculiarities of the time and place, and plumbs the fluid nature of race and sexuality." D'Souza also noted that "if the production sometimes lets the mystical fluidity of the narrative turn to static patches, the enigmas of the play grab on to the imagination and never quite let go. The strains of this unique American lingo rustle through the play like the wind in the leaves."
Bulrusher earned Davis a nomination for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for drama, but the award went to David Lindsay-Abaire for Rabbit Hole. In early 2008 she appeared in Passing Strange, a novel new Broadway musical that was staged at the Belasco Theatre. Its book and lyrics were the work of Stew, who is also the onstage narrator and bandleader, and they recount his unusual life story through various songs and musical interludes. Raised in south-central Los Angeles, Stew—who is called "Youth"—chafes against his churchgoing mother, played by Davis, and tries on different personas as he grows into adulthood in various European cities. Davis took the Passing Strange role because she was particularly intrigued by the way it had been written. The character is distinctly different from the standard wise and devout matriarch in the African-American dramatic tradition. "She is flawed, she is selfish, she is trying to live by the rules and is being squashed by them and has put all of her dreams into this child, and of course he can't fulfill them," Davis told Lee.
At a Glance …
Born Angela Eisa Davis on May 5, 1971, in Berkeley, CA; daughter of Fania Davis (a civil right lawyer). Education: Harvard University, BA (magna cum laude), 1992; Actors Studio, New School for Social Research, MFA.
Career: Film, television, and onstage actor, singer, and playwright; New Dramatists, Van Lier Fellowship, 2001-02, and resident playwright.
Addresses: Office—c/o New Dramatists, 424W. Forty-fourth St., New York, NY 10036.
Davis lives in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn and has released an LP, Something Else, of her songs online. In 2008 she appeared in the acclaimed HBO drama The Wire as Rae, the sister of a homeless heroin addict. She was also involved in an Atlanta preview of her next major work for the stage, Angela's Mixtape, in anticipation of a New York City premiere in the fall of 2008. This is a more autobiographical play and centers around songs. Its title refers to her famous aunt, who is an electrifying college-commencement speaker and University of California professor. Its main characters—besides a youthful stand-in for Davis and her namesake aunt—are her mother, maternal grandmother, and cousin, and the story features actual events from Davis's life, such as the time that the family went to the Caribbean island nation of Grenada to help restore a working government after a 1979 Marxist revolution. "The form literally is the content," she told Laster. "When you make a mixtape for your friend, family or loved one, it's about sharing memories or making new ones together. Each of the songs, each of the sections, are memories, stories being shared—with Angela, with family and with the audience."
Hip Hop Anansi, 2006.
Warriors Don't Cry, 2007.
Angela's Mixtape, 2008.
Passing Strange, 2008.
Box Suite, 1997.
Mourning Glory, 2001.
Brass Tacks, 2002.
Robot Stories, 2003.
The Architect, 2006.
Soul Food, 2001-02.
The Wire, 2008.
Something Else, released in Japan and over the Internet, 2008.
American Theatre, February 2008, p. 44; March 8, 2008, p. B7.
New York Times, January 6, 1971, p. 17; February 29, 2008, p. E1.
San Jose Mercury News, September 27, 2007.