One of the most buzzed-about shows kicking off the summer theater season in New York is ‘Bella: An American Tall Tale,’ written and composed by Obie Award-winning actress-turned- playwright/lyricist/composer Kirsten Childs.
Comically inspired by the real life legend of historical figure Hottentot Venus — believed, by some, to be the first Black female sex symbol — the Robert O’Hara-helmed musical romp chronicles the life and times of a scandal-ridden southern gal, who’s the owner of a vivid imagination and a bountiful derriere (with its own mind), on a journey to meet her Buffalo Soldier fiancé while secretly on the run from the law during the 1870s.
Yes you read that correct! The main character’s booty has a mind of its own; and its' very own raucous musical number too — performed with much sassy aplomb by NaTasha Yvette Williams to be exact.
Starting her career as one of the first Black dancers with the Martha Graham Dance Company, Childs performed on Broadway and is currently a professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. A versatile scribe, she’s an esteemed member of a new generation of thriving Black female playwrights — such as Dominique Morisseau, Lydia Diamond, Sharon Washington and Katori Hall — offering unique perspectives on the Black female experience in America.
A former protégée of ‘For Colored Girls’ creator Ntzoke Shange, she previously scripted the 2000’s critically acclaimed semi-autobiographical musical, “The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin," which handily tackled racism, sexism and self-denial in showbiz, wrapped up in a delightful musical comedy starring Tony Award winner LaChanze.
To say the Los Angeles native’s approach to brazen subjects through her theatrical works are not for the meek is an understatement.
“Well, I think the things that we fear we have to actually face,” Childs recently told NBCBLK. “So anytime something just seems a little too dangerous or a little too scary or a little too just, ‘Oh, you can't say that,’ then I feel it is my obligation to say it and put it in…You just have to push yourself. You have to not be afraid to tell the story you want to tell.”
NBCBLK caught up with Childs to talk about the moment that inspired her to write the hilarious story of a bootylicious Black woman with a wild imagination from Tupelo Mississippi.
You have a few Broadway credits as a performer. How did you transform yourself into becoming a critically acclaimed playwright?
I actually was in a show with Terry Burrell, Lawrence Clayton, Victor Trent Cook, and some other people in the all-Black version of a show called, ‘The Boys from Syracuse,’ which is sort of based on Shakespeare's ‘Comedy of Errors’ but it was written by Rodgers and Hart.
And I thought, ‘Well, I can complain about it or I can just try to write something.'
And we were doing it outside of New York and so the director had an idea to make it Syracuse, New York during the Harlem Renaissance. So they tried to run that by the Rodgers estate and [they] said, ‘No, you’re going to put on those Greek togas and you're going do it like the way that everybody else has done it,’ which was entirely their right.
But what it did for me was made me go: the only way that African-American people can perform in musical theater is if they're either doing the all Black version of a white show or they're the token black person in an all white show, or they're doing a show that doesn't have any kind of book or any kind of story that it's just a bunch of songs strung together.
And I thought, ‘Well, I can complain about it or I can just try to write something, and I know it'll probably be terrible, but I'll keep on writing until I get it, you know, I learn how to do it. ‘ And so I started out and I was like, ‘I'm going to do that.’ And I just continued to do it, and got better at it as I went a long.
After ‘Bubbly Black Girl’ got rave reviews, we didn’t hear much from you. And now ‘Bella’ is here. What happened in the meantime and in-between time?
Well, it got rave reviews but for some reason, people didn't seem to think that there was an audience for it. The marketing people were saying they weren't going to be able to get Black people to come to the theater and they didn't seem to think that white people would want to see the show, which in my head, I felt was kind of ridiculous.
But there are certain things that you can try to fight, and there are certain things that were really, really difficult to fight at the time. So I just kept on writing. I've written a whole bunch of different kinds of shows. I've written shows for Disney. I've written a show that was at Dallas Theater Center. I've written shows that have gone to various regional theaters and I also teach at the Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program where I went to school at NYU.
So you just keep yourself busy, you keep yourself writing. You write works for hire and then you also write shows that are for your own personal love. ‘Bella’ was just the show that I wanted to write for myself.
Now please share the hilarious story about what inspired you to write ‘Bella.’
I was walking down the street one day near my home and there was a couple, and it was a young man and a young woman. And the young woman had the most gloriously, big, big, big, big, big, big, big, behind. And I witnessed this phenomenon.
I was walking in the same direction as them and I had to slow down because I didn't want to miss a minute of it. Every last man that passed by this woman stopped and turned and looked at her behind as if they fell down. And I just kept witnessing it.
And it was every man, they were white, Black, Asian, Latino, young, old, gay, straight, rich, poor. Every single man. Every single man did the same thing and I just went, ‘Wow. When it comes to a big behind, you've been sold a bill of goods. People think you're gorgeous. ‘
And you know, that's not what you see. That's not the focus of what people say is beautiful in this country. And I just had to honor it. So I decided I was going to write a musical about it. And since she was larger than life, I just knew it had to be a tall tale.
Now do you, as a Black woman… how do I ask you this…
Ask away. Feel no fear.
As a Black woman, do you relate to the character of Bella?
I do. Not so much in the fact that I don't have quite as big of a behind, but in terms of what people find attractive with body image, and to be proud of big lips, big nose, kinky hair — all of these things that we are told are perhaps, not attractive that perhaps are more attractive than we're even realizing.
It's just part of what I wanted to do, to celebrate our unique beauty. And so, no, my behind is not as big as Bella's, but part of me looking at it, kind of makes me think, ‘God, I wish my behind was just a little bigger.’
And Suzan-Lori Parks' play ‘Venus’ was revived and played just a block away from ‘Bella’ before you guys actually opened. What's with the timing of that? Do you think we just live in a time where curvy women are being celebrated in some ways that they weren't celebrated in the past?
You know, it's interesting, I really don't know, in terms of theater programming why people put the things up that they do. So I don't know if this was just a coincidence of signs, but I do know that the notion of the big behind is something that is a current thing.
You have Nicki Minaj, you have Beyoncé, you have all of these people that are very well endowed people who are celebrating their African American figures and I actually think it's wonderful.
And I will say that I saw ‘Venus’ and it was absolutely brilliant and the actors in it were extraordinary and Suzan Lori-Parks is just so amazing and beautiful. So I was actually kind of glad to see the show as we were working on ‘Bella.’
So is it like a big booty renaissance?
It is. Hip, hip hooray. Both hips hooray! (chuckle)
[This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity]
‘Bella: An American Tall Tale’ plays through July 2 at Playwrights Horizons in New York City.
New York City Center’s Encores will present a revival of ‘The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin’ July 26 through July 27