For all the reservations I have — and I have plenty — about Kirsten Childs’s Bella: An American Tall Tale at Playwrights Horizons, I can’t help admiring the piece, laughing and smiling over various bits of it, and applauding Childs’s undaunted, apparently borderless ambition. Bella is way too much of a good thing, but it couldn’t be that without having been a very good thing in the first place. It wants to be a brash, brassy, old-fashioned American musical — think of it as what would happen if David Merrick had gotten hold of Suzan-Lori Parks’s Venus — but it also wants to be a feminist parable, a lesson in Black history, a moral melodrama, a new folk tale to match those already embedded in our collective cultural memory, and a romance that traverses multiple genres. But to complain that Childs didn’t succeed at rolling all these things into one reasonably cohesive and not-over-length evening is like complaining that she failed to ascend Mount Everest in ballet slippers. She may not have reached the summit, but she got way above base camp.
The heroine of Childs’s epic and drolly farcical take on African-American female sexuality is Bella (played sweetly by Ashley D. Kelley), a Mississippi child of former slaves who, as the opening number informs us, is also a “big booty Tupelo gal,” with a prominent derriere that rivets male attention and gives her an optimal resource for the era of the bustle. A significant reminder of her African heritage, Bella’s behind, like that of the historical Sarah Baartman — the “Hottentot Venus” at the center of Parks’s reflective play — is her bane as well as her principal asset. Its prominence gets Bella, a wholly unhistorical figure, into difficulties just as often as, in a series of bawdily comic adventures, it rescues her from them. Her ancestry speaks to her through “the Spirit of the Booty,” played by the same actress who saucily embodies Bella’s no-nonsense grandma, NaTasha Yvette Williams.
Having to escape Tupelo, where her shape has attracted and subsequently warded off an arrogant plantation owner who goes by the tall-tale name of Bonny Johnny Rakehell (played with panache by Kevin Massey), Bella crosses the South by train. Her intended goal is New Mexico, where her fiancé, Aloysius Honeycutt (Britton Smith), serves among the “buffalo soldiers,” runaway slaves recruited by the Union Army to battle the Confederacy, and deployed postwar in Western forts. Predictably, many extravagant adventures interrupt Bella’s journey, along with digressions brought on by her equally extravagant imagination. She’s serenaded by a Mexican bandito (Yurel Echezarreta), nearly sidetracked by former slaves settling in Kansas, and wooed with cowboy song by a wealthy Chinese rancher (Paolo Montalban), who inexplicably mutates into a Vegas-style male stripper.
For a resounding finish, Bella is trapped by train robbers and, when her ever-resourceful rear endowment cushions her escape, she winds up in a traveling circus that makes her the toast of Europe while humiliating and exploiting her. (The sequence evokes not only Parks’s Venus but also early scenes of Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man.) Via the circus, Bella’s odyssey — did I mention that the train she travels on is named the Southwestern Odyssey? — finally reaches home, but Aloysius turns out to be no analogue for Odysseus’s patient Penelope, and Bella turns her attention to the devoted Pullman porter who’s rescued and pursued her repeatedly, Nathaniel Beckworth (Brandon Gill). Though this plot turn is no surprise, I wouldn’t have given it away except to add that the character gets Childs’s best song, “Nothin’ But a Man,” which Gill delivers, touchingly, with a marvelous Nat King Cole–ish suavity.
Possibly the song also stands out because suavity, and quietude in general, are scarce commodities in Bella. The performance is never overstressed or overly frenetic: Robert O’Hara, a skilled and sensitive director, has carefully balanced the work’s vast number of competing elements. The problem simply lies in the fact that Childs has provided so many competing elements: Stories pile on top of stories, digress within stories, reflect back on or interrupt other stories. “A life crowded with incident,” as Wilde’s Lady Bracknell said of simple, unspoiled Cecily Cardew. Except that Bella’s experience truly is a crowded one.
The crowding suggests an anxiety on Childs’s part that seems to have, like her tale itself, multiple sources: the desire to make sure her moral comes across clearly, or to make sure she covers all the historical matters that fascinate her, or simply to make sure the audience is having a good time. She needn’t have worried so much. Her musical skill, her humor, her inventiveness, and her gift for finding an odd angle from which to approach every topic all combine to form a secure backing for her cheerfully improper tale. Encasing them all is Childs’s overarching generosity of spirit, which extends to giving even her racist villain, Bonny Johnny, a fine song — a Scots border ballad in style — in which to strut his stuff. It makes no sense to quarrel with an artist of that capacity and that openness. If Bella is excessive, her next work very well may not be. Structures, like styles, are found, not imposed. And as Mae West, herself a product of the period in which Bella takes place, once remarked, “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”
Bella: An American Tall Tale
416 West 42nd Street
Through July 2