Harper Watched: Bella: An American Tall Tale

photo c/o Playwrights Horizons by Joan Marcus

Harper Watched is a recurring series where I talk about entertainment media I've seen and review it for you. From movies to musicals, TV to live theater, I cover it all and lay it out for you right here.

Friday night, I went out with a college friend of mine to indulge in our mutual love of musical theater. As per usual, I was very excited to see the latest musical production at Playwright's Horizons-- Bella: An American Tale. As the show closes July 2, I'll tell you now to grab your tickets before it's too late. If you're under 35, you can sign up for a Young Membership (and students can sign up for a even further discounted Student Membership) for free to get discounted ticket access. This show is absolutely amazing and total #BlackGirlMagic which I am ALWAYS going to support. Right at the top, I'm letting you know this show is a 5/5 and you need to grab your tickets now.

This show is a Western of epic proportions by, for, and about black women. The writer, composer, lyricist Kirsten Childs is a damn revelation-- not many people do all three to begin with, and she does it all with immense skill, heart, and humor.


The Plot

Bella Patterson is on the run from the law and off to be with her sweetheart Aloysius T Hunnicut. Under the assumed name Bella Johnson, she heads west on a train to meet her betrothed, leaving behind her mother, auntie, and grandmother. Bella turns heads everywhere she goes with her big booty and warms hearts with her unrelenting sunshine. She goes on wild adventures, meets wild and amazing characters, and reclaims her story and her identity, over and over again.

Bella deals with a concept I'm a huge fan of as a storyteller and a Psych major-- the nature of our owned stories, and who gets to write and tell them. Bella is a girl with a big imagination, and she sees fit to imagine a world in which love wins out, she is the hero, and her dreams can all come true. Being a black woman, the world rarely sees fit to give her control of her own story, or to listen to what she has to say. History will not write her in. In the opening number she tells the audience that history is the tall tale we learn in school-- but there are so many other stories to be told. And this is Bella's.
photo c/o Playwrights Horizons by Joan Marcus
We grapple with autobiographical memory (our own stories) and historical memory in this exhilarating musical. Bella's grandmother struggles with dementia, but holds herself together best when talking about The Itty Bitty Gal-- their foremother who was forced into slavery but refused to be broken. Bella herself is a bit of an embellisher when it suits her-- and that's her own way of taking better control of her life. Throughout Bella, we see that creating a tall tale out of an ordinary one is not just a means of having fun, but of coping with hardship, finding bigger truths, and connecting with others in the present, past, and future.

Bella is unapologetically black, and unapologetically woman. It delves into complicated issues like the conflicted relationship black women can have with their bodies and how parts of it are seen in the world. It deals with lynching and the unpunished murder of black men and the immense struggle to find hope to go on. It deals with losing hope, losing love, losing dignity, and even losing your mind. But it offers hope in all these struggles; the kind of hope found in having courage, honoring those who came before you, and in owning your story-- if not daring to make it a little bit taller.

Getting Down To Business

Bella is an absolute masterpiece in #BlackGirlMagic. It is so sincere and honest in its experience of both unsinkable laughter and the deepest heartbreak. Kirsten Childs has put together a show that is jubilant and earth-shattering. This show doesn't pull any punches and through the music and the brilliant performances of the cast manages to balance the highs and lows with the audience on the edge of our seats. Childs manages to touch on some of the darkest parts of the experiences of black women and still bring it all back around to hope and finding happiness. 

I'm an Asian woman, and I'm not here to pontificate on the Black Woman Experience because that is just not my lane. But as a Woman of Color, I am 100% here to tell you that you need to support the work of marginalized people (which usually means going out of your way since the mainstream usually doesn't do much for marginalized people). I'm telling you that Bella is by, about, and for black women not to tell anyone to stay away, but rather to encourage you to see it. As a media consumer, you can change the world and yourself for the better by being more critical about what you consume and engaging with works by people outside your experience and moreover outside straight whiteness. This show is not watered down, it's not filtered down to make audiences more comfortable. Bella's story is Bella's story, and true to form, it will not be made small for anyone else's comfort.

photo c/o Playwrights Horizons by Joan Marcus
Bella deals with the really hard stuff so I'm going to throw a warning out there that this show is pretty real about the despair and violence that black women and their loved ones experience. The scene dealing with a woman whose husband was murdered by a crowd of white folk was gut-wrenching and I felt the song being sung by so many black women whose husbands, boyfriends, brothers, fathers and children (as well as wives, mothers, girlfriends, and sisters) have been murdered by people without getting any justice. As fantastic and tall as these tales are, they are so very real, and echo across time and history into our present in a way that is cathartic and validating as much as it is tragic. The song about Bella's mother's struggle with her grandmother's failing memory was just as heart-rending. The loss of a person, an identity, and their history is felt on both a human level and a historic one. It is heritage and history that keep her mind together in the fleeting moments she has it, highlighting the triumph in remembering where you came from and the blow felt when that is lost.

This show also dealt a lot with the difficulties one faces in their relationship with their body. Bella's behind is both celebrated and hated, sought-after and reviled. She deals with the tension of wanting to own her body-- its magic, its sexuality, its reality as part of her!-- while others outside her may choose to objectify her for it, humiliate her, or even attack her. This is told of course through Bella's relationship with her big booty and the spirit of her foremother The Spirit of the Booty aka The First Itty Bitty Gal. She goes through phases of loving her booty, hating how other people see her because of her booty, and of course, appreciating her booty once again not only as part of herself but as part of the legacy of those who came before her.

But don't let all that heavy stuff get you down because the jokes and the comedy are so well done in this show. From over-explain-y bad guys to well-timed looks and occasional 4th wall breaks, this is a hilarious show that will have you laughing and whooping as much as it's got you wiping tears. This is a beautiful, wonderful show. You've gotta see it.

Ashley D. Kelley, who plays the lead Bella, is so charming and comedically brilliant and her voice is the sweetest thing I've ever heard. I will watch her in anything. I've decided. Kenita Miller (Mama) and Brandon Gill (Nathaniel Beckworth) are also standout performers in a cast bursting with immense talent.

photo c/o Playwrights Horizons by Joan Marcus
My favorite ensemble character is definitely the Chinese American Oil Tycoon Cowboy, Tommie Haw. He hits on a lot of underrepresented parts of Asian American identity. The fact that we can "be from here" in that it's the 1800s and Tommie grew up in the US or the fact that Chinese workers built the Transcontinental railroad (often a footnote or a fact after which Asians disappear in the American history books up until Japanese internment-- if that's even covered). Or the fact that Chinese guys can be pretty damn hot. (Look, I hate "emasculation" as a concept because it's usually code for men not feeling superior/entitled to women, but I will admit that Asian guys are routinely under-appreciated.) It also helps that Haw is portrayed by my one true childhood prince charming, Paolo Montalban (he's actually Filipino) whom you may remember from the race-blind Cinderella that aired in the late nineties and taught you the meaning of true love. I got a chance to chat with him and grab his autograph after the show-- he is as wonderful as he seems. I'll put a slight caveat that Bella's portrayal of Mexicans, Indians, and Chinese people are not fully-enlightened, but the show is told from the point of view of Bella, a girl who learned about them through a book written in the 1800s, so I'll give her imagination a pass since the portrayals don't take themselves to seriously either.

Bella is unexpected, with many twists and turns and an ensemble that is as gifted in physical comedy and timing as they are in music. The staging is pretty brilliant too and I'm always in love with Playwright's Horizons ability to make a small theater into something so magical and transportive. If you are in the New York area, go see this show!

Harper's Rating: 5/5

Pros:
Brilliant writing, music, and lyrics by the incomparable Kirsten Childs
By, about, and for black women
Paolo Montalban 
The music is so fun and I NEED TO GET A CAST RECORDING THE SECOND IT'S AVAILABLE
Deft handling of some really heavy material balanced out by incisive humor
Fantastic exploration of narrative as a critical part of collective and individual humanity
Fantastic loved story (I love a love story, because I'm an emotional weenie)
Amazing portrayal of how we live in our stories, and reality is secondary (I'm obsessed with this)
Cons:
Bella's imagination has some pretty wild portrayals of Mexicans and the Chinese, but her ill-informedness is well-explained, and it feels more like a statement on her naivete than on how Mexican and Chinese people actually are in this universe.
I can't buy the cast recording immediately

I'll be going to see the show again on Tuesday night. Get your tickets and see this show while you can! I'm telling you, you'll regret missing out!

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