At the center of Kirsten Childs’ new musical, Bella: An American Tall Tale, is the title character, “a big-booty Tupelo gal.” Although the “tall tale” labeling promises lightheartedness, there isn’t any blue ox or apple-seed scattering to be found. Childs’ formula for a tall tale includes some dark material, and the tone of Bella veers from cheerfully tongue-in-cheek to just plain vulgar, from wildly inventive to hackneyed.
It seems that Childs wants to reclaim black women’s sexuality by celebrating big butts, or some such intellectual rationale for the onstage antics, but given the historical stereotypes attributed by white men to black men’s sexuality as a danger to white women, it’s an uphill battle to celebrate black women’s sexuality and an oversize derriere with a wink and a nod.
Director Robert O’Hara, whose 2014 play Bootycandy had a similar anarchic spirit, has not imposed an overarching tone on Childs’ material. The first act is sluggish, as Bella (Ashley D. Kelley) daydreams events of her past life or wholly invented situations, without building forward motion. It’s also confusing at times because she conjures people in her daydreams who may not be real, and the ensuing feeling is one of marking time.
Fleeing a white rapist she has injured, Bella is trying to reach Fort Craig, N.M., and a buffalo soldier she’s sweet on. En route, she has dream encounters with men, including a flamboyant Mexican caballero named Diego with an accent as thick as chunky salsa, and a Chinese cowboy, Tommie Haw, who strips down to a gold jockstrap. Yes, really; somehow the attire of a latter-day male stripper has invaded Bella’s 1877 subconscious. An idealized black sensitivity intrudes later on, when Brandon Gill’s admiring porter, Nathaniel Beckworth, laments the buffalo soldiers’ treatment of Indians: “That colored men should be the ones forcin’ them folks to leave their ancient homeland don’t sit right with me.”
But that’s typical of the piece, a goulash of 19th-century populist performance, such as melodrama, circus and cabaret; sly references to classic art and literature; and a 21st-century sensibility. It’s a hodgepodge of tropes, stereotypes, and flights of fancy. The white villain, the evil Bonny Johnny Rakehell (Kevin Massey), is a one-dimensional Southern dandy and an enthusiastic rapist, especially of black women. He even sports a curled mustache. Yet in Bella he meets his match. She has escaped his clutches, with the urging of Itty Bitty Gal, an African ancestor of hers, who is also known as the Spirit of the Booty, and a collection of swamp plants. Now, bear with me here. They prevail on her to fart at Rakehell, and he’s carried off into the swamp by the force of her flatulence. If it doesn’t sound inviting, at least it’s Chaucerian.
The fart is a deft steal from “The Miller’s Tale,” of course, while the Rakehell name invokes the hero of William Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress. And O'Hara has staged one sequence wonderfully, so that it reaches the comic heights so much of the show wants to visit, with the assistance of Jeff Sugg’s superb projections: Bella’s escape from a bandit gang led by Snaggletooth Hoskins (Massey again). Once her Brobdingnagian booty has bopped them cold, she jumps from a train, bouncing down rocks and into a valley with Nathaniel on her lap and her big bum cushioning the fall—until she gets a charley horse in it.
Still, this exists cheek by jowl with bald stereotypes: the caballero is a dancing fool and the white circus owners are exploitive crooks. At the same time, the black women are indomitable, nurturing, and sexually vigorous. The black characters get to worry about parents with dementia (Kenita R. Miller as the fretful daughter makes the most of a thankless role), suffer valiantly, and eventually triumph.
But the black experience communicated by Childs, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, often indulges in self-actualizing boilerplate. Says Bella’s Grandma: “Ain’t right a woman got to forget who she is, ‘specially when she come from a long line of strong black women.” It’s woven throughout the show and extends to passages of equally unsurprising dialogue: “My Matthew was guilty of three crimes,” says Ida Lou, a character who may be a figment of Bella’s imagination: “The crime of bein’ uppity. The crime of believin’ in the United States Constitution. And the crime of thinkin’ that, for the South, the war would ever be over.”
Act II benefits from some bouncier songs in the score: one, called “Bide a Little Time at the Circus,” even utilizes a calliope. And Kelley takes Bella down paths of selfishness and arrogance that give her character more substance. Happily, she and Gill have excellent chemistry, as well as strong second-act numbers, so one eventually becomes invested in their working things out. Whether that comes soon enough to make the lengthy evening a winner depends on one’s patience.
The production of Bella: An American Tall Tale runs through July 2 at Playwrights Horizons (416 W. 42nd St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit playwrightshorizons.org.