One of the most surprising moments in "The Bull-Jean Stories," Sharon Bridgforth's compact, hourlong one-act that premiered over the weekend, is also one of the production's most resonant. Playing title character Bull-dog Jean, Aimee K. Bryant breaks into an a capella blues refrain, delivering beautiful hurt.
"Love will kill you, break your heart in two /Love will kill you, break your heart in two /I'm so sick of love, I don't know what to do."
Lovesick she may be, but Bull-dog Jean is an optimist. The musical bit at Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis comes after she rises at a wedding to object to the impending nuptials. The bride-to-be is her lover, and Bull-dog Jean wants her to know that she's her "biscuits and gravy … the amen at the end of [her] prayer … [and her] hallelujah."
Bryant plays more than a dozen characters in "Bull-Jean," a blues-inflected choreopoem with a down-home sensibility adapted for the stage by Bridgforth from her 1998 book of the same name. It's fluidly directed by Signe Harriday.
The main character is a pant-suited woman in the South in the 1920s who loves other women, and whose wit and power puts her in the company of such iconic singers as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Lucille Bogan — blueswomen with more than a few suggestive "dirty blues" to their credit.
In fact, Bogan recorded "B.D. Woman Blues," where the B.D. stands for bulldagger or bulldyke, a lesbian who dresses like a man to appropriate masculine power, disrupt gender norms and repulse homophobia. At Pillsbury House, Bryant strides onto the stage in vest and tie with baller confidence.
Bull-dog Jean's interior world is reflected in the different milieus of designer Mina Kinukawa's playing space, which is one of incompletion, permeability and metaphorical gesture. Empty frames hang awaiting glass for windows or painted pictures. A wooden ladder is short some slats. A swing can be converted into something else. And a teakettle, stein and skillet hang from the ceiling.
There's also a sewing machine that's never used, but its presence speaks of braided narratives, of stories stitched from snatches of life. There's the island lady from the swamps, and the preacher's daughter. There's the nosy neighbor looking out the window to keep up with the 5 a.m. goings and comings.
The characters emerge from Bryant like conjured memories. The actor draws them by distinct inflections and mannerisms, and by music strummed and hummed. She imbues these souls with inviting, down-home warmth before releasing them back into the ether.
Bull-dog Jean is in all of it, for it is her desire, and resultant high body count, that animate the action — her heart quest gives "Bull-Jean" its holy grail.
"This is a story of love ain't enough," she tells us, "of one woman's struggle to ungrip she soul from misery." That struggle makes it all constitutional as Bridgforth's play passes one dogged woman's pursuit of happiness through the blues.
Layered and dense, "Bull-Jean" packs a poetic punch.
The Bull-Jean Stories
Who: By Sharon Bridgforth. Directed by Signe Harriday.
When: 7 p.m. Wed.-Sat., 3 p.m. Sun. Ends Feb. 5.
Where: Pillsbury House Theatre, 3501 Chicago Av. S., Mpls.
Tickets: $25 or pick-your-price. 612-825-0459 or pillsburyhouseandtheatre.org.