The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin Proves the Musical's Far From Dead
Reports of the demise of artistic forms are always grossly exaggerated, manufactured by snarky critics who just want to be first at the fictional finish line. The epic novel, figurative painting, kitchen-sink drama, the avant-garde: all have been declared dead so often, you'd have to be an orthodox Hindu to take any of the obits seriously (you know, guaranteed reincarnation).
The begetter of this irresistible, 11-actor show is the actress and former Fosse-dancer Kirsten Childs, who composed the music and wrote the book and lyrics. I've been hearing about the impressive grants and awards Childs has received during the five years of the piece's development, but I saw none of the workshop presentations or the originating 30-minute autobiographical solo performance, and nothing in the advance press made me expect such polished humor and focused energy. Sharp, quick-moving and supremely confident, The Bubbly Black Girl is much subtler than its title and cartoonish exterior suggest, its music is clever, fun and hummable, and Wilfredo Medina's production (though still in need of tightening) is superbly cast and modulated. The show often seems to float along on a feel-good cloud of contented effervescence, but it's full of crafty surprises that sneak up while you're staring straight at them, like cold spray during a lazy day on the beach.
The plot is a coming-of-age story about Viveca, the titular black girl whose middle-class upbringing in L.A. leaves her with deeply mixed messages about racial identity. She worries early on about whether she will share the fate of the four little girls famously murdered in an Alabama church in the early 1960s and confides conspiratorially in her blonde talking doll ("I've decided I'm gonna be white! Just like you, Chitty Chatty"), who later comes to mechanical dancing-life, in duplicate. She also watches as multiple incarnations of her preppy father genially sing a reassuring bromide ("Smile, smile, things are not as bad as they seem"). Naturally buoyant, she takes this advice to heart as a life philosophy, developing a mask of indomitable bubbliness that helps her move safely and successfully in white society, eventually realizing her ambition to become a dancing star (the bubbliness is irresistible at auditions after she moves to New York)?all at the cost of a fully plausible self-image, that is.
Both the appeal and the serious content of this show are in its bouncy momentum. It breezes along through an astonishing 29 numbers within an intermissionless hour and 45 minutes, using thumbnail-sketch history as background to Viveca's hilarious and poignant adventures. Every scene hinges at some point on the amazing smiling resources of LaChanze (the original Ti Moune in Once on This Island), who can be ebullient and richly vulnerable by turns and who clearly was born to play the role of Viveca. (She is onstage the entire time, four months after giving birth to a daughter!) We see Viveca: at the grade-school dance class where she is crushed at being cast as a "dancing bramble bush" rather than Sleeping Beauty; during a dream in which Harriet Tubman holds a pistol to her head and yells "BE FREE OR DIE, YOU OREO"; at a 1970s house party where she experiments with "party etiquette" (rolling her eyes and looking bored at the boys with big afros); and at a New York audition where her idea of acting "black" is to improvise a monologue in the voice of Foghorn Leghorn.
There's much more wit and hilarity?including a wonderfully wacky sequence where the decrepit grandmother of Viveca's boyfriend suddenly transforms into Tina Turner, and a brilliantly staged scene where a pool of secretaries works out of holes in the floor (the splendidly bubbly sets are by David Gallo). Several other actors also stand out, particularly Darius de Haas in the crucially grounding role of Gregory, the devoted boy next door.
Most interesting of all, however, is the shrewd way this show positions itself to speak politically without seeming to do so. It could very easily have settled dumbly into its several platitudinous premises: the use of bubbliness as a cartoonish trope for whiteness, and the implication that all whites are spooked whenever any black person exhibits a full range of personality. To Childs' enormous credit, though, neither of these really irritates, because they don't appear to serve any importantly evasive purposes. The life story she relates is entertaining, convincing and peppered only with light irony drawn from the material?much like an extended vignette from A Chorus Line (whose shadow is affectionately visible in all the showbiz scenes, particularly the gentle lampoon of Bob Fosse in the character of Director Bob). The details of Viveca's life are the point: the exact texture of such a girl's privileged but real problems?with straightened hair, nappy hair, schoolyard taunts, a clueless white flower-power boyfriend, and later a womanizing black one.
For all these reasons and others, I feel sure that, if marketed properly and retooled well for a larger stage, The Bubbly Black Girl could be a runaway Broadway hit on the scale of Rent or A Chorus Line. The experiences it deals with are wholly accessible but (sad to say) truly new in the Broadway context, and Childs' sort of upbeat humor is the perfect, nonconfrontational means of getting large numbers of middle-class white people to enjoy thinking about race (and then to go away feeling righteous enough about their experience to tell their friends about it).
The $64 million question is whether the show can attract black audiences in substantial numbers?the financial holy grail in today's commercial theater. At many points I did feel as though the play was especially designed to please the likes of me, a white guy from New Jersey, and that could taint it as inauthentic for some, despite its "anti-chameleon" theme. Most of the songs are in white musical idioms (1970s bubblegum, r&b and Kander and Ebbish Broadway, for instance), and the explosion of proud blackness in the Tina Turner episode doesn't occur until the last half hour. Again, this bias doesn't bother me. Childs' powerful honesty about equally important questions of femaleness and social wholeness is rare, uplifting and nothing to be ashamed of. She has conquered many censors within, and now deserves all the help she can get handling those she can't control.
Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St. (betw. 9th & 10th Aves.), 279-4200, through July 9.
An influential theory making the rounds in media-studies circles today (its champion is Philip Auslander) holds that all us stage-struck dramaphiles are basically full of shit whenever we glorify the pristine "liveness" of plays (and other events involving the actual presence of dying, unpredictable people) at the expense of media works. The power and reach of recordable media have become so overwhelming, says this theory, that purely nonmediated notions of liveness are now unthinkable. Even the heartiest theater lovers are infected by tv- and movie-based definitions of immediacy, and we can't help applying them as measures of quality, intensity and authenticity when we go to live theater, however innocent or independent we may think we are. This is a provocative and distressing thesis, although it's badly weakened by the paucity of theater examples cited by its main advocate. If Auslander were to see Liz Tuccillo's Joe Fearless (a fan dance), however, he'd no doubt wave the example about like a detective with a smoking gun.
The novelty in this play, directed by Craig Carlisle, is the transformation of the theater into a basketball arena, with an actual court onstage (radically shortened but with regulation baskets) and with real basketball players used as some of the actors. The players warm up to deafening rap music as the audience enters, presiding over a sweaty, hyperpituitary atmosphere that is complemented by outsize ad-banners and lubricious dances by gorgeous actresses playing cheerleaders, and all this indeed promises decidedly unrecordable excitement and immediacy. Watching the seemingly effortless layups, reverse dunks and alley-oops (basketball staging and choreography by Taro Alexander), I actually thought briefly about the marvelous Hedwig and the Angry Inch and the way its rock-concert aura reclaimed audiences the theater had lost.
Joe Fearless dashes such expectations within minutes. Its story?about an obsessed fan who is convinced he will die if his team (the K-9's) doesn't win the NBA Championship that has long eluded it?is basically a rough draft for a cheap tv movie. The script is constructed by and for people who can't find anything funny or poignant unless it directly reflects uncomplicated media references, and it plies its meager effects mainly by tricking up cardboard figures with trite personal problems and pseudo-emotions and then passing off their dull-witted doings as fresh with a visual one-liner (plunking potato-Joe's couch in the middle of the basketball court). Episode after episode struts as original but is really a facile simulacrum of some mediated nonoriginal: a tv announcer narrates details of Joe's private life in the same smarmy tone he uses to ask the players callous on-camera questions, for instance; Joe and the players dance together, in a fantasy sequence, to "You Sexy Thing"; the players disappear from the stage when Joe loses his tv set, only to reappear after a friend lends him another. It's possible that Tuccillo thinks she has written a critique of the big bad media and their nasty penchant for commodification. After all, the radio DJ who gives Joe the nickname "Fearless" (when he calls in to defend the K-9's against all odds) turns his sincerity into a jingle in order to sell it as a crackpot novelty. We commodity-obsessed Americans know true homage when we see it, though, and it doesn't get much clearer than this.
Atlantic Theater, 336 W. 20th St. (betw. 8th & 9th Aves.), 239-6200, through Sept. 2.
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