Bella: An American Tall Tale continues at Playwrights Horizon, New York until 2 July.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
In Bella: An American Tall Tale, the multi-talented Kristin Childs has concocted a gloriously overstuffed fantasia. Her work is an unabashed celebration of the full-figured African-American woman, more specifically her large posterior. Or as the play’s heroine, who hails from the town of Tupelo in the state of Mississippi, is described early on, she is one ‘Big booty Tupelo gal’.
And by extension, this Off-Broadway musical is a festive but meaningful salute to the indomitable perseverance and strength of American black women in the face of horrendous odds.
Childs is also out to give proper due to the people of colour who helped shape America in the period between the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement, people often forgotten or ignored. As Childs writes in a programme note: “they didn’t exist in the history books I grew up reading in school.”
Childs wrote both the lyrics and the music as well as the book. And for good measure, she is credited with vocal arrangements, which include some impressively intricate chorales.
In director Robert O’Hara, she has found an interpreter who seems to be unfailingly attuned to her wildest flights of imagination. He lets her work unfold as a colour-splashed circus-type vaudeville, a motif repeated in the set design of Clint Ramos and the costumes by Dede M. Ayite. The author is also blessed with a cast that virtually explodes with talent.
Taking her cue from the tall tale tradition of the American West, Childs sets her story in the late 1870s, just a couple of decades after the close of the Civil War, when the brutalities of slavery still hang over the American South.
Bella is leaving her hometown after she was the target of an attempted rape by a rich plantation owner. In fighting her attacker off, Bella has seriously injured him; he has put out a reward for her arrest. Assisting in her defence was the incarnation of her African ancestor, identified as ‘The Spirit of Booty’.
Bella has boarded a train heading to the Western frontier, where she expects to find happiness with Aloysius T. Honeycutt, a soldier in the US Cavalry who has been writing her letters.
Along the way, Bella meets up with a colourful gallery of characters, perhaps real, perhaps imagined, as she relates her history. They include such folks as Miss Cabbagestalk, a mail order bride travelling to an unpromising marriage who runs off with a serenading Mexican cowboy, and Tommie Haw, an Asian American cowboy, who upon boarding the train transforms into a very contemporary male stripper.
Most importantly, Bella connects with the train porter, Nathaniel, a caring man who becomes increasingly important in her life. When robbers board the train, Bella escapes, with Nathaniel on her lap, bouncing down a mountainside on her commodious bottom in an Act I finale.
I would think by now you’re getting a taste of Childs’ free-wheeling modus operandi, enhanced by her ebullient score, which jumps from twangy country-type foot-stompers to rhythm and blues inflections and some surprisingly sophisticated character songs. Her music takes on a pulsating excitement in Daryl Waters’ orchestrations, played by the six-piece band ensconced somewhere off the stage.
In any event, Bella winds up in a circus, with her anatomy making her a major attraction in the capitals of Europe. But back in America, she becomes a victim of abuse, catcalls and self doubt. There’s plenty of seriousness supporting Childs’ frivolity, but in what seems to be a reflection of the author’s own personal optimism, rest assured that she does give her heroine a happy ending.
And a happy ending is exactly what you want for Bella, played with an endearing vivacity – as well as an innocence spiked by spirit – by the ample-figured Ashley D. Kelley, the signature booty enlarged to proper portions with a tie-on bustle. More real is the bigness of her voice.
At the same time, the bountiful score and wide-ranging storytelling give just about everyone in the 12-person cast one or more opportunities to grab the stage.
Brandon Gill makes the porter Nathaniel a quietly comforting figure, and his big number toward the close of the show, ‘Nothin’ But a Man’, in which he expresses his love for Bella and his depression caused by her rejection of him, verges on show-stopping.
Equally bravo-worthy is Kenita R. Miller as Bella’s Mama, whose worries about her own mother’s incipient dementia is expressed sublimely in an aria entitled ‘Mama, Where Did You Go?’ Grandma is engagingly embodied by NaTasha Yvette Williams, who on occasion becomes in breathtaking fashion the formidable Spirit of the Booty.
Britton Smith sings with laid-back eloquence the love letters Aloysius writes to Bella, but when he leads a group of black soldiers into defying a bartender who won’t serve them, he becomes a powerhouse in a production number bluntly entitled ‘Don’t Start No Shit’.
As you may have gathered, Childs seems to know no bounds in where she wants to take her story. There is at times almost too much incident to keep straight, as her narrative moves back and forth in time as well. Some pruning wouldn’t hurt. But when there is too much, it is too much of a good thing.
There are also, of course, inescapable echoes of the celebrated non-musical play Venus by Suzan-Lori Parks, which tells the grimmer story of the Venus Hottentot, an African woman whose anatomy made her an early 19th century freak show attraction in London. Venus was given a vivid Off-Broadway revival earlier this spring.
So, I guess it’s safe to say, big bottoms are in fashion this season. But then again, as Childs would certainly add, when aren’t they?
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