The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin continues at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, London until 11 March.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Hopefully one day, we will not have to meet a Viveca. A character, initially, without any sense of self or purpose; shaped by what others want her to be while being tormented by being different. Being black.
This is at the heart of Kirsten Childs’ thought-provoking The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin which surprisingly has taken 17 years to reach a European stage.
The piece centres around Viveca, a young black girl living in a middle-class family. She has been taught by her father (Trevor A Toussaint) to forget about the troubles affecting the world and to always smile.
Loving words from a father perhaps, but when Viveca finds a newspaper report announcing that three young black girls have been murdered in a church by the Klu Klux Klan, her perceptions of both white goodness and optimism are shaken – but never challenged.
As a child in the 1960s, Viveca decides to turn her back on her identity as a black girl. This is shown through one of the most powerful scenes in the production when she throws away her black doll and instead confides in her blonde one (Jessica Pardoe).
In ‘Sweet Chitty Chatty’, one of the most memorable numbers in the show, her wind-up doll comforts her with inane, carefully-recorded phrases. Like the wind-up doll, Viveca is controlled and far from real.
Viveca’s need to be liked and accepted by people does have comic value. Standout moments include her joining the hippy movement in a clearly directed piece which showcases the talent of the ensemble cast and, later on, trying to be part of the conscious black movement.
Sophia MacKay as the leader of this movement has real stage presence as she instructs Viveca to ‘kiss her teeth’ and ‘roll her eyes’.
Bubbly Black Girl truly comes into its own when the action moves to New York in the 1980s.
Sophia Mackay takes over from Karis Jack as the ‘bubbly’ black girl. The characters that she meets are outrageous caricatures – usually a negative in most theatre pieces – but it works well here to show Viveca growing up and striving for some self-respect.
Demonstrating good comic timing, Ashley Joseph is a standout performer as the Michael Jackson-style dancing lothario, Lucas.
Josette Bushell-Mingo’s production of Bubbly Black Girl is a powerful look at self-identity and loss which speaks clearly to our time. Although Viveca is flawed, she ultimately becomes a symbol of real strength.
Readers may also be interested in:
Interview – Karis Jack on her role in The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin