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Kirsten Childs on the American-beauty myth in “Bella: An American Tall Tale”

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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.”

Photo by Joan Marcus, Courtesy of Playwrights Horizons

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.”

Ashley D. Kelley & Brandon Gill Photo by Joan Marcus, Courtesy of Playwrights Horizons

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

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  1. Pingback: Kirsten Child's "Bubbly Black Girl..." joins the Encores! Off-Center Line-Up

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Cast List

Jessica Frances Dukes to Lead the Cast of By The Way, Meet Vera Stark

Drew Shade



Jessica Frances Dukes Photo via Signature Theatre

Acting powerhouse Jessica Frances Dukes, who recently slayed Alisha Harris’ Is God Is Off-Broadway, has been tapped as the title role of Lynn Nottage‘s By The Way, Meet Vera Stark at The Signature Theatre. Directed by Kamilah Forbes the revival production runs January 29, 2019, through March 3 with a February 19 opening night.

You may remember the Off-Broadway premiere of this show at Second Stage Theater in 2011 as it starred Sanaa Lathan.

It’s the Golden Age of Hollywood, and aspiring starlet Vera Stark works as a maid to Gloria Mitchell, an aging star grasping at her fading career. Worlds collide when Vera lands a trailblazing role in an antebellum epic starring…her boss. While Vera’s portrayal of a slave turns out to be groundbreaking, decades later scholars and film buffs still grapple with the actress’ legacy in Hollywood and the impact that race had on her controversial career. Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynn Nottage’s fast-paced, sly satire, directed by Kamilah Forbes, will take you on a seventy-year journey through Vera’s life and the cultural climate that originally shaped her and continues today.

The cast also features Jenni Barber as Gloria, Manoel Felciano as Max/Peter, Warner Miller as Leroy/Herb, Carra Patterson as Anna Mae/Afua, Heather Alicia Simms as Lottie/Carmen, and David Turner as Brad/Slavick.

The creative team includes of Clint Ramos (scenic design), Dede M. Ayite (costume design), Matt Frey (lighting design), Mikaal Sulaiman (sound design), Katherine Freer (projection design) and Daniel Kluger (composition).


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Events and Happenings

Billy Porter Will Star In His New Play Remember To Live At Primary Stages

Drew Shade



Billy Porter Pose(FX) promo photo

The Off-Broadway theatre company, Primary Stages, announced their 35th Anniversary season. Launching the lineup includes a new play by Tony Award-winning & Golden Globe-nominated actor Billy Porter entitled Remember To Live. That’s correct; The Pose(FX) star is a playwright. Beginning performances October 29th, Porter will also be starring in the piece.

Billy Porter draped at the Golden Globes Photo via @theebillyporter IG

Back in 2014 Porter’s While I Yet Live debuted at Primary Stages under the direction of Sheryl Kaller, who will also direct this future production set to premiere at the Cherry Lane Theatre.

Remember to Live is told from the perspective of an African-American gay filmmaker. The play centers on the stories of five gay men who all lived through the AIDS crisis and are now grappling with sex, intimacy, redemption, and love all with the indifference the current political climate.

Performances run October 29 through December 22. Additional casting to be announced at a later date.

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