Consider for a moment the image of the “All-American dream girl”. With her long hair, nice shape; beautiful, confident, flirty… BLACK? Kirsten Childs’ newest musical Bella: An American Tall Tale currently running Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, explores this enchanting concept; The idea that the quintessential All-American woman could be Black.
Set in the Wild West, “Tall Tale” follows the story of Bella, a “gorgeous full-figured big booty black woman” played by Ashley D. Kelley, and her travels across the open country on a journey of self-discovery with her magical booty. You read that correctly. Her magical booty. Along the way she meets several historical persons of color which include Tommy Haw, a Chinese rancher Paolo Montalban); The Exodusters, Black frontiersmen; as well as the Buffalo Soldiers*.
Childs shares, “part of my mission in writing this musical is to subvert some of the narrative that you normally expect to hear when you’re talking about westerns. First of all, you don’t hear about cowboys of color. You don’t hear about gorgeous African-American imaginative wonderful young women who have agency.” She continues, “there’s just no talk of the contributions that people of color have given to this country during that time period and so I want to turn that on its ear.”
As a dancer and actress turned playwright, Childs’ musicals feature Black female characters and/or characters of color like herself. Childs’ basis for this is how “It’s important to have strong complicated Black women roles written by strong complicated black women.”
But how did Childs’ counter-cultural Wild West narrative develop? In a note-from-the-playwright, Childs’ shared that the character of Bella was born out of an epiphany she had one afternoon on her way home. She happened to be walking behind a Black couple and noticed that every single man that passed them by turned around to stare at the woman’s butt.
Afterwards, Childs said she realized, “That zaftig little woman was an American dream girl, as sensual and iconic as Marilyn Monroe. But in white America, her larger-than-life appeal has all too often been dismissed, disparaged, or appropriated.”
In the Western canon, the American Frontier typically features stories of fictional and historical white characters. “I wanted to flip that script,” Childs says, “to create a new myth celebrating the power and beauty of the black female body, with all the joy, fun, silliness and sorrow, heartbreak and triumph of the Black woman’s experience in America. And what better way to frame such a uniquely larger-than-life figure than in that uniquely American form, the tall tale?”
Bella: An American Talle Tale was commissioned by the Playwrights Horizons Musicals with book, music and lyrics by Kirsten Childs, direction by Robert O’Hara, and choreography by Camille A. Brown. “Bella” will conclude its run at Playwrights Horizons’ Mainstage Theater on July 2, 2017.
*Buffalo Soldiers – Black soldiers of the US Army that the government organized to fight Native Americans