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How a new musical is helping to correct a whitewashed history
Writer-composer Kirsten Childs was walking down the street near her Upper West Side home when she spied a couple: a small, muscular man and an African-American woman she describes as "zaftig, with a kind of Venus Hottentot behind." Childs immediately noticed the reactions of passers-by. "Every single man who walked by them in the opposite direction -- black, white, Hispanic, gay, Asian, straight, young, old -- turned and looked at her behind, and the looks were like, wow, that's wonderful," she recalls. "I thought to myself, you never see a story about a larger-than-life woman like that receiving that kind of response. So I went home knowing I just had to do something about this."
That body-positive encounter planted the seed for Childs' new musical Bella: An American Tall Tale, now in previews at Playwrights Horizons.
Set in the late 19th century, the fabulist show centers on the title character (played by Ashley D. Kelley), a black woman of grand physical proportions who flees an incident in Tupelo, Mississippi and travels by train to the Wild West to reunite with her Buffalo Soldier boyfriend. The first half of Bella takes place en route, but soon "she has to escape again and, in the second act, she finds herself in a circus -- and that's all I'm going to say," Childs reveals slyly.
The tall-tale tone of the empowering piece reflects the playful, upbeat, and often fantastical style Childs has displayed in previous shows Funked Up Fairy Tales (fairy tales with an urban attitude), Miracle Brothers (about dolphins and race relations in 17th-century Brazil), and Broadway dancer saga The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin, which won her an Obie Award and is set to be revived as part of New York City Center's Encores! Off-Center series this summer. "It's fun for me to live in that world and make wild things possible," she says. "The history of my people has been one of oppression, and the first step in becoming free is to imagine yourself free. Imagination plays a really important part in making that possible: making possibility become probability, which then can become reality."
Bella fits in well with Childs' aim of telling stories about people not often depicted on stage -- or in history books. As she began researching America's post-Reconstruction period, she learned about figures that hadn't been covered in school such as black cowboys, black mail-order brides, and a millionaire Asian rancher. That's why Bella encounters characters from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.
Childs is passionate about creating inspiring parts for people of color on stage, and the self-possessed Bella is an excellent example. "She's certainly aware of but does not define herself by her physicality," she says. "Some who try to objectify her, do it at their peril. She's just living her life." But it's not always a giddy journey of laughs and hugs. "Something happens when she has to come face-to-face with the fact that her world view may not be everyone's," Childs says. "She has to deal with those who may not look at her in such a positive way."
Speaking of perceptions, Childs says she has learned a lot about how young audiences of color respond to theatre through her involvement with TDF's Open Doors program, which pairs professional artists with New York City students for shows and post-performance discussions. The kids' responses aren't just about what they see onstage, but often what they don't. Even when they do spot characters who look like them, "the stories a lot of times are about victimhood or the bleakness of their situation," Childs says. "It's hard to see yourself represented as someone who is a loser."
In addition to creating theatre and characters that young people of color can relate to, Childs wants to showcase positive stories. "That's my goal," she says. "To do something with some reality laced through it but have some fun, too -- and have a happy ending."
TDF MEMBERS: TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for Bella: An American Tall Tale. Go here to browse our current offers.
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Top image: Ashley D. Kelley (as Bella), NaTasha Yvette Williams, and Kenita R. Miller. Photos by Joan Marcus.