MASI ASARE

10 Reasons You Should Go See Kirsten Childs's BELLA: AN AMERICAN TALL TALE

 

 


Friends, I was lucky enough to see Kirsten Childs’s new show during previews, and know that if it was that good even as she was doing final rewrites, it must be even better now that it has opened at Playwrights Horizons. I think this is a really important, delightful show, and I want to celebrate it, so I want to share some of my thoughts. I encourage you to go see it and form your own thoughts! Here’s to courageous, convention-defying, fresh new musical theatre.

The basic story is set in the American Old West and happens to center on black people in that time. SPOILERS AHEAD. A young woman with a gorgeous, traffic-stopping figure commits the crime of self-defense against a rapist and has to take a train away from her family on the thin hope of meeting with her soldier boyfriend. Along the way, her overactive imagination conjures up a series of friends and fellow passengers, while each time she is brought back to reality by a good-natured Pullman porter whom she then saves from a train wreck, but gives up for dead when they are separated and she, stranded without her belongings, is conscripted to join the circus. After traveling the world, thrilled with the success of her new life, she realizes that what she thought was audience adulation is really ridicule for her big derrière, and her long-sought soldier boyfriend ditches her for not living up to his expectations of respectability. Bella is on the verge of sinking into an abyss of alcohol and drugs, convinced that no one actually loves her for who she really is, when the Pullman porter shows up (alive after all!), and woos her with a drop dead gorgeous love song. But she cannot accept him until she learns to accept herself, making peace with her African woman ancestor, “Spirit of the Booty,” who watches over her and really symbolizes her love of herself. It is a peacemaking brought about through the perspicacity of her grandmother, a woman who walks the line so many black women do, between wisdom and insanity.

Pretty solid story, right? But where BELLA really shines is in its genius use of humor to create an uplifting, hilarious evening that nonetheless leverages an important social critique. Bella’s booty is almost another character in the show, with its magical powers and its alter ego “Spirit of the Booty.” It is a symbol (metonym) for herself, her racialized and gendered self, and it is the reason she is both celebrated and ridiculed in her time. If that is not a poignant assessment of the black female experience in this country, I don't know what is.

Here are 10 important interventions, ways Kirsten Childs is inventively working with musical theatre conventions, that I see in BELLA. You might see more...go and see the show and see for yourself! 

  1. Wielding the comic, politically satiric, and diverse range of the musical revue. BELLA brings to bear the power of the revue, one of our most venerable musical theatre forms, and one especially suited to both comedy and political satire. Before the much-heralded "integrated musical" of Rodgers & Hammerstein et al., or the "concept musical" introduced by shows like HAIR and Sondheim's COMPANY, the vaudeville shows that toured the country on the TOBA circuit for black audiences, and other circuits for white audiences, had a revue structure--a series of numbers strung together that created opportunities for hilarious juxtapositions and daring novelty numbers. Now, the way that white audiences saw black people in revues was typified in shows such as the Cotton Club Revue in Harlem, with its bevy of light-skinned dancing girls and vaudeville-blues stars like Ethel Waters singing numbers penned by white songwriters (think “Stormy Weather” about a long-lost man)--or in Broadway revues like the Irving Berlin/Moss Hart show AS THOUSANDS CHEER, a politically engaged show built on newspaper headlines, and also starring the indomitable Ethel Waters singing the sad, powerful song “Suppertime” about a husband who has been lynched. BELLA allows all audience members to see black people outside of the circumscribed roles of some of those early revues built for white audiences (see #2, #3, and #4 below) that persist in today’s musicals. Especially in its first act, BELLA provides us with a series of numbers in this episodic structure, allowing for startling juxtapositions and novelty numbers (see #8 below)...it’s a way to take on many themes and feature many star characters at once. It’s a structure whose very fabric is one of diversity, and I mean that not racially, but stylistically. The revue allows for a diverse range of characters, musical and dance styles, and perspectives--the result of Bella’s useful overactive imagination--without insisting that everybody bend to the hierarchy of one tight storyline. It allows for a storyline that breathes a bit in order to accomplish comedic and political points.

  2. Offering us a black heroine whose main role is not built on sadness and suffering. Musical theatre audiences love to see a black person singing about how hard life is (see the examples in #1 above, etc.). When the blues were taken up by Broadway, much of their earthiness, humor, and self-determination was smoothed out by Tin Pan Alley songwriters. Torch songs, their reengineered descendants, are not particularly gutsy, just achingly sad. We love torch songs because of the ache, even if the origins of that ache were the form known as the blues, which, if you listen to Bessie Smith or Gertrude "Ma" Rainey you'll soon realize are a repertoire full of hilarious, empowered black women. But the torch song has usurped its place. And there is a perverse pleasure that comes from viewing and reproducing, again and again, black suffering, even if viewers think they are being all politically engaged by celebrating black people’s presence onstage. It can easily become the black suffering that is the star, not the black person. Thankfully, this musical does not fall into that trap. See also #4 below.

  3. Foregrounding a full-figured woman who is an ingenue not a mammy. I don’t know what else I can say here. If you don’t know what the mammy stereotype is, here are some basic guidelines: big, black woman, asexual, dedicated to caring for everyone else, smiling and happy, sometimes sassy but not in any kind of a politically threatening way. The mammy as a stereotype is comforting and comfortable, but she is ultimately a beaten down woman, a woman pressed into service of other people, and one who has no real needs of her own. We have some great black women ingenues in the musical theatre canon, but often they kind of reproduce the shape of the white ingenue, rather than subverting the mammy (THE WIZ, ONCE ON THIS ISLAND… DREAMGIRLS reclaims the mammy type and makes her oppression more visible, but Effie is not quite the ingenue of the show, and also, see #2 above re black suffering). This is an incredibly radical move for our form.

  4. Celebrating the redemptive power of black love. BELLA is a musical where, at the end, two black people celebrate their love for each other, and neither one of them is dead. This is a big deal, because it basically never happens in musicals. Broadway seems more willing to support its black women’s romances when they are in love with white men (GREAT COMET, MEMPHIS, AIDA) or in love with white women (FALSETTOS, RENT). Other great black women heroines in love with black men are celebrated only when either they or the love of their life dies (RAGTIME, ONCE ON THIS ISLAND...again, see #2 above).

  5. Celebrating three generations of black women. The number for Bella, her mother, and her grandmother brought tears to my eyes. It showcases how our understandings of our physicality are passed down from generation to generation, and it honors the strength of the black women in this country who have found a way to exist at all under racist structures and claim their own beauty and power. This number may not touch all audience members the same way, but I for one am so happy that there is a musical theatre song that does this, and I am happy for all the little black girls who may one day rise up in the business who should know that it is possible to voice this kind of a celebration in our art form.

  6. That costume in the number “White People Tonight.” This costume, brilliantly designed by Dede Ayite, and Ashley’s face when she walks out in it, deserves its own bullet point. This is the traveling circus moment in the story. Of course, black people were actually exhibited as savages back in the day, and white impresarios loved to produce primitivist Oogabooga type numbers for the musical stage where scantily clad black people danced around and acted out white fantasies about African natives imagined as basically cave people. So Bella walks out in this hilarious animal print number, her hair frizzed out to nowhere, with a bone in her hair as bow. The difference between this number and all those other primitivist moments in the musical theatre history is that here it’s clear to the audience that she knows how ridiculous she looks. And then she spins the number, turning it into a wickedly funny social critique...it’s sort of like, you want primitive? I’ll give you primitive. I can’t give it all away but let’s just say that number alone made the show for me. I laughed until my sides hurt.

  7. Operating on multiple levels to meet many different kinds of audience members where they are. There are some audience members who will, simply, think it’s fun and funny to laugh when they see a black woman with a big butt. They will have a good time at this show. There are also people who will notice acutely the traditions that are being represented in the diversity of the revue-like format, and recognize their own histories being performed, whether in a virtuosic step team routine, a funky dance number about frontier life, or a soulful, jazz-inflected ballad.

  8. Celebrating the sexiness of the Asian-American man. There is a great number in BELLA featuring a Chinese-American cowboy that does just this. Come on. First of all, can you name any musicals familiar to mainstream American audiences where a character is an Asian American man? Shows like ALLEGIANCE, despite the advocacy of stars like George Takei, or even David Henry Hwang’s rewrite of FLOWER DRUM SONG are in an uphill battle here because there is hardly a recognizable musical theatre “type” to even begin to work with. Instead, we are presented again and again with the exoticization of Asian men (and women) in far-off lands (I blame THE KING AND I). Where the Asian man does appear in any kind of romantic role,it is often only as a threat to the white man whose masculinity somehow has a more noble claim to romancing the Asian woman (I’m looking at you, MISS SAIGON). We need to be done with this, and here is one writer’s take on a different way. May there be many more to come.

  9. Engaging black women’s physicality in a way that is empowering not objectifying. You have to think about this show in the context of not only Sarah Baartman, the so-called Venus Hottentot, who was paraded around so white people could salivate over her backside but also contemporary conversations around how big butts should be, and who is allowed to have them. We live in a moment where getting butt implants is a regular surgical procedure for women who want to be more beautiful, yet the beautiful booty is seen as not something that belongs to black people who, let’s be honest, originated the thing, but rather white people who can afford to have the most artful surgical procedures done (read: Kardashians).

  10. Forgoing an urban setting for a country setting but one that is not the plantation. Let’s think about how black people are usually presented in musicals. The legacy of the minstrel show is the desire to see black people in a romanticized plantation setting (oh, the good old days of slavery). Nowadays we don’t do that so much but there is instead a strong impulse to do shows with black people in the city, where black people are linked to street scenes, urban life, Harlem, etc. BELLA breaks with both of those conventions and creates a period piece that claims the old west as a time where, shocker, there really were black people.

If BELLA seems to take on too many of these at once, I critique not the composer/lyricist/bookwriter and her audacity, her boldness. Instead, I critique our musical theatre community--writers, composers, directors, producers, audiences all included--that so few voices capable of addressing these themes are invited in or that so few voices already making decisions of how money should be spent on theatre in the US have the awareness that these important social issues must be grappled with if our form is to move beyond its legacy of minstrelsy and racial stereotype. Small wonder that Kirsten Childs felt it incumbent upon her to speak truth to power...when there is so much truth that needs speaking. Or, rather, singing on the American musical stage.

 

 

P.S. I also must commend the wonderful performances from Ashley D. Kelley as Bella, brimming with hopefulness and plumbing the depths of despair as the scene demands, and all with a glorious voice; Brandon Gill as the Pullman porter Nathaniel Beckworth, whose number in Act 2 is one of the jewels of the show, Kenita R. Miller, who sings her guts out and just sparkles in the roles of Mama and Miss Cabbagestalk; and Natasha Yvette Williams with her regal performance as Grandma and magical Spirit of the Booty. And the band, led by Rona Siddiqui, sounds great on the gorgeous, supple orchestrations by Daryl Waters.

Comments

Thanks for this detailed, passionate review. I loved BELLA when I saw it a few months back, at the first preview of the run it had in Dallas, TX (with some of the roles, including Grandma/Spirit of the Booty, played by local actors). I could see that there were some issues with the way the show meandered and sprawled, but I didn't care, because I simply enjoyed it all so much. I knew there would be cuts made during the ensuing days, which I was told there were, but I was so glad to have seen all that I did. I especially loved the beautiful ballad the train conductor sang near the end of the show, as well as the Vaquero's number, and the song sung by Bella, her mother and her grandmother. I loved what Ms. Childs said at the time, about the fact that there weren't any tall tales of the Paul Bunyan/John Henry/Pecos Bill variety, about mythic women, and that she decided to create one. As far as I'm concerned, she did a great job.
This is so brilliant and spot-on in every way.

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