For the decades that she has been lighting up Twin Cities stages with her artistry, actor and director Aimee K. Bryant has had a singular focus: deliver the best performance she can for audiences.
But her approach is different for Sharon Bridgforth's "The Bull-Jean Stories," where Bryant will play more than a dozen characters in the solo show.
"I'm tending to my own healing through this work," Bryant said after a rehearsal last week. "Don't get me wrong — I care about my audience and will do right by them. But I've got barriers to authentic love in my history — generational trauma in my history. I'm trying to make my way through this work to my own freedom."
And she hopes that theatergoers, similarly, will find solace, nourishment and release when "Bull-Jean" premieres Friday at Minneapolis' Pillsbury House Theatre.
Adapted from Bridgforth's seminal 1998 book of the same name, "Bull-Jean" is not so much a play as a generous restorative ritual that celebrates survival resilience and sapphic love, the playwright said.
"This is a soul's journey returning again and again to grow through her life challenge around love," Bridgforth said. "I hope audiences can take away the same sort of healing it has provided for me."
The one-act orbits Bull-Dog Jean La Rue as she returns home to the rural South in the 1920s. A Bessie Smith-style character, she interacts with other folks with names such as Sassy B Gonn, Tillecous Loufina Johnson and Pontifacuss Divine Johnson, the next-door neighbor.
"On the surface, this is a play about a woman who loves women, but it really is about learning to love ourselves in completeness," Bryant said. "It's a vehicle for myself, for the audience, for everyone to learn how to be available for love, and to identify when it's not love."
The book, and the play it sparked, offer nonlinear, hybrid forms. Both the work on the page and the work on the stage look and read like poetry.
"I feel that Bull-Jean represents a Black lesbian male-of-center butch warrior who speaks in poetry because she's so firmly inside of her heart," Bridgforth said from her home in Englewood, Calif. "Even though it's broken, she keeps trying to heal her heart so that the love she offers can be reciprocated."
Last year, Bridgforth was one of eight scribes awarded Yale University's Windham-Campbell Prize. The honor, celebrating literary achievement and promise, came with $165,000.
"I'd never heard of it but when I got the call, I literally fell over on the couch and started screaming," Bridgforth said. "I was calling Jesus."
The award citation noted how Bridgforth's work deftly blends old practices such as rural storytelling with avant garde ideas, West African spirituality and improvisational jazz.
Much of Bridgforth's body of work has been seen in the Twin Cities at places such as the onetime venue Intermedia Arts, Pillsbury House, Walker Art Center and Penumbra Theatre. In fact, she started coming to share genre-bridging performances in 1994, when arts advocate Eleanor Savage brought her company to the Walker's Dyke Night.
It was in Minnesota that she marinated in the orbit of the late Laurie Carlos, an original member of the company of Ntozake Shange's "For Colored Girls Who've Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf" who went on to become a pathbreaking theater-maker. Carlos directed the world premiere of Bridgforth's "Con Flama" at Penumbra Theatre in 2002, with Bryant in the production. "Bull-Jean" director Signe Harriday was also in that show.
"There was a little bit of sadness at being an understudy because I so wanted to be in the piece. But it turned out to be ideal for me for I got to watch Laurie and Sharon and [actor] Sha Cage and all these fierce people work," Harriday said. "It ended up being a beautiful master class in this art form we now have a language for, which is theatrical jazz."
Bridgforth likens working together again with Harriday and Bryant to "a serious return to family."
They have a common theatrical language, a shared purpose and mission.
"Signe is going to direct the hell out of this piece," Bridgforth said. "And I adore Aimee — her artistry and how she moves in the world. I know I can just release everything to her and it's just gonna soar."
The Bull-Jean Stories
Who: By Sharon Bridgforth. Directed by Signe Harriday.
When: Jan. 12-Feb. 5. 7 p.m. Wed.-Sat., 3 p.m. Sun.
Where: Pillsbury House Theatre, 3501 Chicago Av. S., Mpls.
Tickets: $25 or pick-your-price. 612-825-0459 or pillsburyhouseandtheatre.org.