Blessings and Curses

When network television finally dissolves into the random ocean of video Web browsing, what a lovely day it will be. Because when that happens, TV will no longer be the center of American life, so that we can at last get up from the couch and have a culture again. Video itself, at that point, will be so full of choices that it will evolve the way cultures traditionally have, in complex patterns of pleasure, rather than in the market-obsessed pursuit of the lowest common denominator.

When that happens, the theater will be its own master again. There will still be commercial productions—capitalism, like the poor, we shall always have with us—but they will be produced and performed on stage terms. This doesn't mean that naturalistic clutter will replace the currently fashionable bareness, or that quid-pro-quo "well-made play" construction, Sardou style, will regain its ancient Broadway preeminence. The splintered consciousness is here to stay, and since movies inherited it from Shakespeare anyway, it has rights of eminent domain theatrically. But performances will be three-dimensional, grandeur and breadth of spirit will mean something, and narrative, a swallow that always flies south when wintry decadence strikes the theater, will nest here again on that sunshiny day. Till then, television rules, though the signs of its struggle to hold the fort become more visible every day.

You can see them, for instance, all over Kirsten Childs's appealing new musical. The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin is the theatrical song of a child—or Childs—raised on television and pop music, among the privileged and sheltered folk of Southern California, TV-land itself. The child, who is named Viveca and nicknamed "Bubbly," is African American, but is brought up to believe that this doesn't matter except in offering a specific heritage to be proud of. Her father teaches her that a smile will get her through any situation. Life, though, keeps telling her otherwise: The newspapers headline a church bombing in which four little girls are killed; black kids at school call her an "Oreo" for socializing with whites ("It's a damn good cookie," she tells herself defensively); and her mother, while giving her black history primers and p.c. dolls with Afros, nonetheless straightens the child's hair. No wonder little Viveca has nightmares in which Harriet Tubman refuses to rescue her from nuclear holocausts brought on by figures in KKK hoods and robes.

LaChanze and company in The Bubbly Black Girl: a Childs-eye view of life
photo: Joan Marcus
LaChanze and company in The Bubbly Black Girl: a Childs-eye view of life


The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin
By Kirsten Childs
Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street

By William Shakespeare
Music Box Theatre (Closed)

Viveca's ethnic identity crisis is compounded by—or maybe the cause of—her tendency to drift through life, echoed in the tendency to dramaturgic drift which is one of the show's few significant flaws. Her spiritual sorting process may be a struggle, but it's carried on in a comfortable middle-class haze, from hippie protests in L.A. to temp jobs in New York. Only those moments where America confronts her racially—there's a truly terrifying one when she and a school friend are stopped by cops while walking home from a party—slice through the amiability. As warmhearted as her heroine, Childs has a kind word for everybody, even the blueskis: This is surely the only African American theater piece of the decade in which you'll hear white cops address a young black woman as "Miss."

Far from softening its effect, though, the work's gentle spirit heightens its interest, making a queasy dynamic tension with the anger and frustration that keep bubbling up from under the superficially fizzy charm. Half of your heart is on the verge of pity and terror all the time, because this story is the tragedy of a naive sap who's always about to get clobbered by our brutish reality. The other half, of course, is waiting with desperate eagerness to see Viveca's purity of heart and her faith in equality rise to the top despite all racist obstacles.

That happier ending is, in a sense, what happens, just as the existence of the work itself is proof that it has happened for Childs, who has come along very much at the right time, when the theater needed a fresh voice to build a bridge to the pop world, and an artist of color who could speak openly for unity, rather than as a harsh advocate for separatism. Not that Childs tailors her message to suit the times; it would be seen through in an instant if it weren't genuinely heartfelt. Nor does she conceal the nightmares, or the innumerable other pitfalls involved; it's merely that she writes of them with hope, where despair is the norm. The despair is confirmed by evidence all around us—imagine talking to the Dorismond and Louima families about hope—but then, the hope is confirmed that way, too, by people in all walks of life who don't have the ill fortune to make the front pages of the tabs.

People like Childs, for instance, who began her New York career pretty near the top, dancing in several Bob Fosse musicals. If you believe her hilarious dramatization of the experience here, she strolled into her first audition so television-bred that she sang a commercial jingle (luckily based on a show tune) for her up number; told not to "go white" when reading dialogue, she obliged with an accent out of Amos 'n' Andy. "Director Bob," as the auditioning girls call him in the evening's slyest song, cast her anyway, presumably loving innocence and a big smile as much as the rest of us. But even in the showbiz razzle-dazzle, Childs makes sure we notice the cultural confusions. We listen while her ballet and jazz dance teachers drive her schizoid with symmetrically opposed demands, and we watch while "director Bob," no longer trying to make her fit his image of black female behavior, nearly rejects her when she starts to let go of her usual bubbly-black-girl behavior. ("For this show," he says, in response to her unexpectedly somber improvisation, "I need something a little less . . . dark.")

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