Student Spotlight: Lexi Warden ’21 explores identity as director of ‘Bulrusher’
Warden's senior thesis will be performed as a radio play this spring.
Lexi Warden ’21’s final curtain call at Dartmouth will not be on a physical stage, where she usually makes her appearances, but broadcast over the radio. For the past two years, Warden has been working with theater professor Monica White Ndounou on her thesis project, a radio adaptation of Eisa Davis’s 2007 Pulitzer finalist play “Bulrusher.”
Warden has been an involved member of the theater department since she started at Dartmouth, working closely with theater director Jamie Horton.
“[Warden’s] been one of the most active students in our theater department,” Horton said. “She has flourished as an actor, as a dancer [and] now as a director.”
At Dartmouth, Warden has been involved with several Dartmouth theater productions including “Citrus” and “Into the Woods.” She has also danced and performed in the Dartmouth Dance Ensemble productions of “Petrushka” and “Unfurl.” Most recently, she was an ensemble company member in this term’s “The Radical Joy Project.”
Off the stage, Warden was assistant stage manager of “Eclipsed” in 2018 and assistant director in this year’s fall mainstage production of “Faith, Hope, and Charity,” another radio play.
“Bulrusher” tells the story of a multiracial girl of the same name growing up in the predominantly white northern California town of Boonville in the 1950s. After meeting another young Black girl who moves from Alabama, she discovers a new part of herself and embarks on a journey of love, both for others and herself.
Warden, a student from outside Seattle, is studying theater modified with African and African American studies. She chose to direct this play as part of her thesis project, which explores the concepts of race and identity in performance.
“Racial identity has always kind of been in the forefront of my mind, and particularly, because I come from a performance arts background, the way in which I've understood race has always been kind of coded through performance,” Warden said. “I think the origins of this project came from me knowing that there's a lineage and wanting to figure out what it is, especially now that there seems to be an uptick in interest in what constitutes a multiracial identity.”
Warden said she first discovered “Bulrusher” through a production near her hometown and was excited to see the play convey identity in ways that she had been researching.
She is interested in the tragic mulatto archetype, which appeared in American literature during the mid-19th century depicting a mixed-race person barred from both Black and white society.
“[Bulrusher] is almost like a reimagining of this trope in a way that reverses all of the self-hatred that seems to be synonymous with the tragic figure, and that's really why I wanted to explore it, originally,” Warden said.
Ines Tanoh ’21, who plays Bulrusher, said that this show will be her first time performing in a Dartmouth theater production. She added that she felt Warden fully supported her throughout the whole process.
“Lexi has really made it her mission to make it so that not only are we all comfortable with everything that's going on, but we're also able to return to any point to talk about better ways to portray [characters]” Tanoh said. “I think another thing that's been really crucial is how she's been able to let us bring our own kind of flavors to the characters in a way that still fulfills her artistic vision.”
Tanoh said she originally auditioned for the play to support Warden, a friend of hers, but now feels that she has grown as an individual while working under Warden’s direction.
“I really do feel like I've been marked by this experience in a really, really positive way,” Tanoh said. “I'll probably carry ‘Bulrusher’ — and everything that I went through this term, with ‘Bulrusher’ and with Lexi — throughout my life.”
Putting on “Bulrusher” during the pandemic required Warden to transition the production from a live stage play to a Zoom-based, radio production suitable for remote rehearsals and performance.
Warden had to work closely with her sound designer, Samantha West ’20, to ensure that the story was communicated effectively exclusively through sound. This is West’s first time designing the sound for a radio play.
“There’s no visual aspect here,” West said. “Sound is already such a major storytelling tool that not a lot of people notice, but when it's a radio play and there's no visual thing to distract you, you focus so much more on what the sound is doing and how the sound is helping tell the story.”
Another crucial aspect of the production is the performance of the Boontling dialect, an almost extinct dialect used by the residents of Boonville, California. Cast members worked with Lynette Freeman, a dialect coach, in order to perfect their sound and bring their characters to life over the radio.
While Warden is unsure where this project and her time in the theater department and AAAS program will take her after she graduates, she hopes to continue pursuing both passions.
“I do really believe that my academic work and scholarship inform my art, and my art, in return, informs my scholarship,” Warden said.
After working with her for the past four years, Horton said he is proud to see how Warden has grown.
“In everything that Lexi has done, I would say she has sought a high bar,” Horton said. “She's accomplished in multiple areas now, and exactly where she's going to go with all of that, I have no idea, but that promise is inherently, truly exciting.”
“Bulrusher” will be performed live via Zoom webinar on Saturday, April 17 at 7:30 pm.