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.
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.”)
Childs is very clear—maybe a little too clear—about the stakes in these matters. Full of imagination and wit, as well as its endearing bubbliness, her piece has a slightly teacherish tone; packed up with its innocence is a desire to instruct, in the manner of an after-school special. It’s all too fitting that we last see Viveca teaching a children’s dance class in Harlem: She has become, if not exactly Harriet Tubman, one of those distinguished figures whose devotion to their community whets the interest of the History Channel. The dance she shows the children is “The Skate,” a bob-and-weave, 3/4 against 4/4 number to which, in the earlier high school sequence, Viveca’s vision of a multiracial society has been danced out. (Childs has cunningly composed the number, with its jivey cross-rhythms and quick-witted lyrics, as a quodlibet, with quotes from Hebrew, Japanese, and Mexican folk tunes gliding through it.)
The loneliness and hard work the last scene implies are the regimen of any committed artist; they imply a future for Childs beyond the simple recounting of her personal experience, and the simple morals to be drawn from it. The mixture of skill and zest visible in this piece show a deeper theatrical sense hatching as we watch. She’s already well ahead of her director, Wilfredo Medina, and her choreographer, A.C. Ciulla, whose work is pleasantly free-flowing but always generalized, never pointed, even when David Gallo’s pop-up set pieces offer their strongest cues. The production’s main gift to Childs is a lead actress who can fulfill all of the evening’s demands with glorious ease, and a smile slightly wider than the Great Plains. LaChanze—that’s her name—has been admired before, in this column as in other papers. The French phrase avoir de la chance means to have very good luck; “to have LaChanze in your show,” from now on, will be its most accurate English translation.
The magical charm LaChanze conveys could probably even ward off the evil spells that notoriously surround Shakespeare’s “Scottish play.” I’ve never seen a Macbeth that wasn’t a failure, so the abrupt folding of Kelsey Grammer’s version was no surprise. The disappointment lay in its being such an uninteresting failure. Terry Hands, best known for that more laughable disaster called Carrie, supplied Grammer and his band of California recruits with a drab, obvious, unexplored picture of the thane’s complex world that looked like the last four Macbeths I’d seen, dried down into a bouillon cube. Grammer, chopping rigidly at the pentameter as though he expected it to come crashing down on him, found his way into a tolerable vein of bitter irony around the time of Banquo’s murder, but that was his only sign of life. Diane Venora, who is apparently now the only American actress allowed to play Shakespeare, postured and hooted like a poisoner (mezzo) in a 19th-century Italian opera. The one mildly comic moment was the banquet after Macbeth’s coronation—the only guests were two gentlemen and Venora. Michael Gross’s Ross and Kate Forbes’s Lady Macduff weren’t painful; Hands’s hands-off approach reduced everyone else to flatness. What Grammer’s failure proved, very simply, is that you can’t hoodwink couch potatoes into theatergoing by shoving TV stars into Shakespeare. Obvious solution: Create stage stars. But for this you need an alert, active, ongoing, nonimported theater. Maybe when television finally dissolves.