Paul Bunyan wielded his mighty axe and cleared many a forest with a little help from his great blue ox named Babe; Johnny Appleseed wandered the prairie scattering seeds to replant a handful of the trees that Bunyan had chopped down; John Henry, hammer in tow, cleared the railroads singlehanded. And Bella Patterson defended a train from robbers by fighting them off with her butt, and survived a leap from the moving train by bouncing down a mountainside on the self-same rear end, earning her the title “Big Booty Tupelo Gal” across the frontier forever onward.
Haven’t heard of that last one? That’s probably because Kirsten Childs, who wrote the book, music, and lyrics to Bella: An American Tall Tale, has only just invented it – or maybe a better word would be that she distilled it from a cross between a 21st century pop culture sensibility, the oeuvre of tall tales from the western frontier, and with a trace amount of the Sarah Baartman story (also known as the Venus Hottentot).
Upon observation that stories regarding people of color didn’t exist in the history books during that formative period in the American West that gave rise to many other tall tales and mythic American heroes, Childs has admirably set out to correct the record, creating a new American hero by the name of Bella, and to tell a story that (as she puts it in an interview) would “flip the script, 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 of America.”
This is well put – but perhaps more coherent than the story itself as it plays out on the stage. Bella: An American Tall Tale, is, of course, also paying homage to another American tradition – it’s a musical. And try as Childs might, and perhaps despite the direction from the always-interesting Robert O’Hara, the collection of ambitions and forms and storytelling devices can’t sustain a consistent position on this particular (and, let’s face it, delicate) juxtaposition between depicting a powerful black female in the 1870’s who is battling to reclaim her ancestry versus the action-hero 21st century satirical version of the same female who effortlessly fights off the bad guys by booty-smacking them. With, you know, her actual booty.
So, to lay out the basic setup: Bella (played by the charismatic Ashley D. Kelley) is running from the law – there’s a wanted poster with her name on it. She’s been given a new last name by her mother and sister, despite her grandmother’s discomfort with leaving her history behind (she is a descendent of “that first itty bitty gal with the big behind,” which is as close as the work gets to directly referencing the Sarah Baartman angle), and put on a train to New Mexico where she plans on meeting up with her pen pal and betrothed, a buffalo soldier named Aloysius T. Honeycutt (Britton Smith, who shines in a later number “Don’t Start No Shit”). Once on the train, she meets porter and future love interest Nathaniel Beckworth (engagingly embodied by Brandon Gill). In a her own car, away from the ogling menfolk, she’s joined by a fellow traveler named Miss Cabbagestalk (Kenita R. Miller, who also plays Bella’s mother), a mail order bride on her lonely journey from an orphanage to a mining town in Arizona. As luck would have it though, a Mexican cowboy (Yurel Echezarreta, who pops up in practically every musical number in one guise or another) leaps through an open train window and there’s a big show-stopping seduction number replete with a dance-off (one of many – the show is a chronic stop & starter, especially in the first act, featuring energetic and very in-the-body choreography by Camille A. Brown) after which both cowboy and mail-order bride disappear out the open window.
Or, did they? The porter, acting as a sort of guide for the audience, suggests that this happened all in Bella’s flight of fancy (although it’s never quite explained as to where Miss Cabbagestalk vanished to, if not out the window). It’s one of several “Is this really happening?” moments, in which the dramaturgy has allowed the audience to at least attempt to experience a moment as “real,” only to be told that it wasn’t. Until, that is, we aren’t told that anymore. Cue the fight scene with train robbers that Bella fights off by comically buffeting them with side-buttock. (Bella’s rear, at least, is represented by a large bustle on the backside of her dress.) That scene is shortly followed by a certain-leap-to-death in which the porter rides Bella down the mountainside and they are saved yet again by her posterior, and then there’s a break for intermission, during which one might well ask, in the larger context, “Is this really happening?”
The prevailing tone is one of antic silliness, one that straddles the line between the absurd and the asinine (and if you think that’s a funny word given the context, this might well be the show for you). However, it’s hard to shake the sense that one might not want to laugh at the spectacle of a black woman battling mustachioed robbers with her butt. We’re laughing with her, right? Presented as it is, offhandedly almost, it elicits laughter that feels too easy, at odds with the larger emotional journey as it has been presented, which is best stated by the grandmother, who states early on “Ain’t right for a woman to forget who she is, ‘specially when she comes from a long line of strong black women.” This sentiment, however welcome, isn’t consistently supported by its material either – see, it so happens that Grandma is suffering from dementia of some kind; during many of her scenes, she forgets who she is talking to, which is played sometimes for laughs and sometimes not.
When in its sweet spot tonally, Bella: An American Tall Tale suggests that it might be received in the spirit of a South Park episode, with bodily functions and body parts and various stereotypes offered up as fair game (I haven’t mentioned the Chinese stripper cowboy, who also gets a first act show-stopper). And yes, this blending of the earnest and profane – while perhaps unconventional – could in theory pave the way to take back an appropriated story (and female body) in order to make it one’s own, robbing the tradition of minstrelsy of its power and restoring a voice to the black women of history. Were this the case though, the work itself would need to function as a bait and switch, wherein the audience is first asked to laugh and then confronted by their laughter. If one takes this musical as the bait, it sure as heck does not appear that there is a switch. Instead, back in the spirit of the American Musical, we’re rushed – if rushed is the right word to use in a work that runs about two and a half hours, including intermission – into an overly tidy and somewhat implausible conclusion. (Grandma, still on message, appears and says, “Make sure at least one black woman in this world get a happy endin’ to her story.”)
It’s difficult to argue against that sentiment, and yet, it’s an uneasy slope. When asked to choose between cognitive dissonance and easy, if inadvisable laughter given the subject matter, maybe it’s best just to give one’s self permission to laugh. Most of the audience the night I was in attendance seemed willing to do so. Days later though, I’m still plagued with an uncertainty as to what it was, exactly, that was going on. Just how meta is this thing? Is it possible that the whole production was playing the long game, an experiment in order to see if and when we’ll flinch? Yet, that answer doesn’t fully add up either – after all, you can’t let someone off (or keep them on, as the case may be) the hook if there is no hook.