Thursday, July 27, 2017

THE BUBBLY BLACK GIRL SHEDS HER CHAMELEON SKIN: This Perfect Fit For Encores! Off-Center's Mission Deserves A Longer Run

It's easy to imagine that, in the hands of the right director, Kirsten Childs' lightly satirical musical The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin might shed its own chameleon skin and embrace a sharper tone that could serve as an edgy commentary on the state of race relations in the U. S. today.  

As it stands, however, it still is a worthy model for the kind of programming well suited to the mission of New York City Center's Encores! Off-Center, the summertime younger sibling to the well-established Encores! series of productions of (usually) seldom-seen older Broadway shows that takes place during the winter and spring. In a similar vein, Encores! Off Center tackles Off Broadway shows.  

Now in its fourth season, Encores! Off Center has not yet fully found its footing. Some of its productions, for instance, have been little more than straight-up concerts, while others have been done (generally more successfully) in the style of the regular Encores! series, as semi-staged versions. This is how The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin has been developed, under Robert O'Hara's surprisingly tame direction (surprising, because as a playwright, Mr. O'Hara has shown himself to be quite at home with the raw and raucous with such works as Bootycandy).   

The show itself, which was last seen at Playwright's Horizons in 2000, is a semi-autobiographical tale of one young black woman's journey to self-discovery. It is divided into two acts. The first takes place in Los Angeles during the turbulent 1960s, where we meet up with young Viveca Stanton (aka "Bubbly"), portrayed by a delightful Nikki M. James whom you might remember from her Tony Award-winning role as the naive Nabulungi who longs to journey to the promised land of Salt Lake City in The Book of Mormon.  

When we first see Bubbly, she is a young child who has already developed a sense that being black puts her on a lower rung, possibly a dangerous one. Early on, she learns of the 1963 Birmingham, Alabama church bombing in which four young black girls were killed. That story finds its way into her nightmares, and she wonders if she might be in jeopardy herself.  

And so she starts to identify with her seemingly more desirable white peers. She spends a lot of time engaged in serious conversations with her favorite white doll, Chitty Chatty ("I've decided I'm going to be white, just like you!"), and only plays with her black doll when she thinks her mother is looking. She has also absorbed her father's life lesson to "Smile, Smile" at the world and to always present an upbeat positive image of herself.  

It takes a long time, and an Act II move to New York City, for Bubbly to learn that presenting herself always in this way is neither honest nor healthy. It is not until the very end of the show that the people-pleasing "Bubbly" makes way for the realistically tougher and more self-assured "Viveca."  Before that occurs, however, we will have spent a lot of time with Bubbly as she experiences the pains and tribulations of elementary, middle, and high school, where she is frequently bullied and rejected by her peers as a misfit and turncoat "Oreo"; she only briefly finds respite in her beloved dance class and during the "colorblind" hippie era with her white boyfriend Cosmic Rainbow (a very funny Josh Davis, who later takes on the role of a not-so-funny policeman).   

For a New York audience, at least, Act II is the more sharply written, and the tone is amped up with some bite. Even the costumes - all pastels in the California sequences - have become New York black. When Bubbly arrives and greets the city with enthusiasm, it is with the certitude that she will make it as a professional dancer in short order. But her " 'Scuse me, pardon me, have a nice day" is met with a chorus of "Get the fuck out of the way!"  

Production photos by Joan Marcus

Undaunted, Bubbly continues to take dance classes, and she winds up auditioning for "Director Bob" (another role well-played by Mr. Davis and presumably modeled on Bob Fosse), who is casting for a Broadway show.  In a very funny and snappy sequence, Director Bob asks Bubbly to read some lines. She does, but he wants her to try again, and this time, "don't go white on me." Taken somewhat aback, Bubbly pulls off the only thing she can think of, an excessively exaggerated Southern black reading based on the stylings of the Warner Brothers cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn. 

This is the kind of thing the show could use more of; it is original, funny, and disturbing all at the same time (especially since it effectively lands her the role she has been trying out for). There are lots of other opportunities throughout the show to build on this kind of dark humor: a potentially explosive encounter with the police, some ugly moments in dance class, the unpleasant experience of working in the secretarial pool at "Glass Ceiling Corporation." All of these moments fly by with little regard as to their significance.  I'd love to see this show in the hands of a director like Lileana Blain-Cruz, who brilliantly helmed Suzan-Lori Parks' The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA the Negro Book of the Dead at the Signature Theatre last year.  

The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin is, of course, a musical, and Kirsten Childs has created a nice compilation of rhythm and blues, traditional show-tunes, gospel, and even jazz-infused numbers that keep things moving forward - although there are a couple of songs in Act II that, while excellent in and of themselves, are outliers that serve mostly to highlight the raise-the-roof performances by, respectively, Julius Thomas III as Bubbly's short-lived boyfriend, and by Kenita R. Miller, as his advice-giving grandmother.  

The cast as a whole is quite excellent, as is the onstage band under Anastasia Victory's fine musical direction. And even though the show lacks the kind of bite that would ratchet up its relevance, it is well worth seeing.  Unfortunately, this production is only scheduled for two performances (regular Encores! productions generally run for five, including three on the weekends). So, if you happen to read this before, say, 5 p.m., you will have but a couple of hours to catch the second and last show at 7:30. 


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