Dallas — The second show for Dallas Theater Center’s new season is Bella: An American Tall Tale, a world premiere musical written by Kirsten Childs. It’s also the first of two world premiere musicals at DTC this season (the second is Douglas Carter Beane and Lewis Flinn’s Hood). Bella is not Childs’ first collaboration with DTC, as she also wrote the popular hit Fly a few years ago with Rajiv Joseph and Bill Sherman. Childs also won an Obie for another musical, The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin, which premiered at Playwrights Horizons. Bella is also produced in association with Playwrights, which will hold its own premiere in the spring of 2017.
The musical stars Ashley D. Kelley as Bella, plus Josh Davis, Yurel Echezarreta, Denise Lee, Will Mann, Liz Mikel, Kenita R. Miller, Paolo Montalban, Clifton Oliver, Gabrielle Reyes, Zak Reynolds and Donald Webber Jr.
TheaterJones caught up with Childs right before a rehearsal at DTC.
TheaterJones: Where did you get the inspiration to write Bella: An American Tall Tale? Specifically, how did you create the title character?
Kirsten Childs: It actually started when I was doing some work for hire for another company, and I wanted to write something for me. One day, I was walking to my apartment and I witnessed a phenomenon that became this musical. There was this man and this woman. The man was one of those muscular guys with a tight T-shirt, they were both small people. And the woman had a Venus Hottentot behind. Venus Hottentot was this woman from Africa who had a very big behind—because the people in her tribe were shaped that way. And [this shape] was surprising to Europeans, so they took her and they showcased her around Europe in the 18th century. She became this symbol of exploitation for the African woman’s figure. [Saartjie Baartman, aka Venus Hottentot, has inspired many literary works, including Suzan-Lori Parks' 1996 play Venus.]
This woman I saw on the street had one of those really big behinds, and I witnessed something I wouldn’t believe if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. Every man coming toward us—every socio-economic class or job—they stopped, turned and looked at this woman. Some were disgusted, but every single man looked. There was some kind of power and beauty in that. That’s not something you see on TV or in society, I had to write something on that. This woman is larger than life…it’s a tall tale! I’m going to write a tall tale on a woman of color! And I found in my research and I found out about all of these other ethnicities and stories that were never in history, and I thought I have to bear with ness to this in song and dance.
What can you tell us about Bella? Why does her story fit this tall tale format?
The heroine is running away from something that happened to her in her native town of Tupelo, Mississippi. She’s running out west to reunite with a guy from her hometown who is now a Buffalo Soldier with the army in New Mexico. So she gets on the train to run away from the secret in her past, and on the train she meets all these wild and crazy characters. When she escapes from the train, she ends up in a circus, and she’s still going on her journey.
How did you end up working on this musical at Dallas Theater Center?
This is really crazy. First of all, I had such a great time on a musical I worked on a while ago named Fly with Rajiv Joseph and Bill Sherman and Jeffrey Seller and a whole bunch of wonderful people from New York and Texas who were involved with the show. It was such a fun, fun time! When I was here at the time, I was actually working on Bella, as a long-term project. Kevin Moriarty said, “When you’re finished, let me know.” I was thinking of working with Playwrights Horizons on it, and they have a co-production set up. I said to them, I know Kevin Moriarty from DTC.
In between this I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art because they had a fantastic Civil War exhibit—photography, painting, sculpture—it was incredible. I’m sitting outside the Met on a bench and out there walking down the street, it’s Kevin. Like, I’m looking down at my cell phone and glance up, and here comes Kevin! So I tell him a little bit more about the show and I’m researching it here at the Civil war exhibit. And then a week or two later, I’m seeing The King and I at Lincoln Center and who is in the lobby? Kevin. So we were fated to work on this.
It’s so exciting that Robert O’Hara, who wrote and directed Bootycandy at Playwrights Horizons is directing Bella. How did he get connected with this project?
Tim Sanford, who is the Artistic Director of Playwrights Horizons, said this story looks like it could be directed by Robert O’Hara, and you need to know more about him. They were showing Bootycandy and it was opening night and after seeing it, I said, “Oh my God this guy’s sense of humor is just so wild, I just know we’ll have a connection.” He read the show and seemed to like it.
What have you discovered in the rehearsal process here at DTC?
One thing I have learned is that I can write a song in two days. And the reason I had to write this song was that the people in the end of the scene needed to change their clothes [for a scene right after that one]. So I was approached by Robert and the costume designer saying “Please can we have something!” So, I wrote a song. And I took two days, I wrote it, and I came back. And it makes sense in the dramaturgy of the show.
You create something and you have to give it over. Sometimes…what you thought it was, is not just what it is. Sometimes that upsets you and sometimes it makes you go, “These [artists] know more about who these people are than I do.” And I have to acknowledge that and embrace it. That is the most exciting thing for me about musical theater or theater in general. More than any other art form it is a collaborative art form.
Do you feel like you’re recreating what American tall tale characters can be with this musical? Or is it really inspired by your research?
They’re not that different from what one considers a tall tale. There was a podcast on a woman who was a riverboat captain, like a radio show, Annie Christmas. What I thought was interesting, was that what tall tales seem to do is provide a voice for people who normally don’t have a voice in the history. I think it’s part of the rugged individual voice. You can say whatever you want in a tall tale and you can get away with anything, because it’s a lie. So nobody can pin you down and say it’s a lie, I can say whatever the hell I want. What I love about it is the joy in it, that boldness to just make up something so unbelievable but that satisfies the question that people want to know about in a comforting and empowering way. I think the essence of what a tall tale is exactly the same.
What kinds of issues or ideas do you explore in Bella?
I saw recently the young girls of South Africa who are protesting about their hair. They have to wear their kinky hair straight; and it just affirms the thing about your self image, that you’re beautiful however you look. And it’s important in the world for you to know that. That’s a little bit what Bella’s about. It’s not the main story, but she’s got a big behind and she’s happy with her ebullient spirit. And it makes me happy to see it happy and sung.
I’m playing with image, body image, and things happen because of Bella’s big behind. There are characters that you see in stereotypical roles, so I’m playing and subverting stereotypes. And people have to face their impressions of different ethnicities, and not run away from their stereotypical impressions. But with a little twist. But I don’t want to say what, because I want people to come and see the show. I expect that people will be delighted and some people provoked. And provocative theater is fun too.
» Bella is currently in previews, opens Sept. 30 and runs through Oct. 22
» Read Mark Lowry's Q&A with Robert O'Hara about Bootycandy and Bella
» Shelby-Allison Hibbs is a Dallas-based teaching artist, playwright, director, performer and a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. In her Work in Progress column, she'll have conversations with playwrights, theatermakers, directors, designers, dramaturgs and others involved in the process of realizing new work from page to stage as she explores new plays and musicals being developed/created by theaters of all budget sizes in North Texas.
NEW WORK CURRENTLY ON LOCAL STAGES
- Pocket Sandwich Theatre presents Scott Eckert's Death the Musical II: Death Takes a Harmony, Through Sept. 24 OUR LISTING
- Uptown Players presents the fifth Pride Performing Arts Festival, which features several new plays on LGBT themes, at various locations on the Kalita Humphreys Theater campus, Sept. 16-24 OUR LISTING
- The Bishop Arts Theatre Center presents the third annual PlayPride LGBT Festival, with six new locally written plays on LGBT themes, Sept. 16-25 OUR LISTING
SELECT UPCOMING NEW WORK
- Kitchen Dog Theater presents A Stain Upon the Silence: Beckett's Bequest, featuring works by or inspired by Samuel Beckett, including the premiere of a KDT-commissioned work by Abe Koogler, Oct. 7-29 at the Trinity River Arts Center OUR LISTING
- PrismCo debuts its latest movement theater work, Midas, at the Oak Cliff Cultural Center, Oct. 8-23 OUR LISTING
- The Drama Club presents The Incident, a one-man work written and performed by Terry Vandivort, running in repertory with Wild, Wicked, Wyrd: Fairytale Time, four new adapations of fairytales, at Bryant Hall on the Kalita Humphreys Theater campus, Oct. 10-29 OUR LISTING
- Amphibian Stage Productions in Fort Worth premieres Kathleen Culebro's Smart Pretty Funny, Oct. 20-Nov. 13 OUR LISTING
- Contemporary Theatre of Dallas presents Patrick Emile and Olivia de Guzman Emile's musical As We Lie Still, which had a workshop performance at the New York Musical Theatre Festival OUR LISTING
- The Ochre House in Dallas presents Kevin Grammer's Dreaming Electric, about Nikola Tesla, Oct. 28-Nov. 19 OUR LISTING
- Theatre Three presents Bruce R. Coleman's Day Light, Nov. 17-Dec. 11 OUR LISTING
PREVIOUS WORK IN PROGRESS COLUMNS
- Len Jenkin's Jonah at Undermain Theatre (April 15, 2016)
- David Lozano and Lee Trull's Deferred Action in a co-production between Dallas Theater Center and Cara Mía Theatre Company (April 28, 2016)
- Janielle Kastner's Ophelia Underwater, presented by The Tribe at Margo Jones Theatre (May 11, 2016)
- Caridad Svich's De Troya, a developmental reading presented by Amphibian Stage Productions in Fort Worth (May 13, 2016)
- Steve Yockey's Blackberry Winter and The Thrush and the Woodpecker in Kitchen Dog Theater's 18th New Works Festival at Undermain Theatre (May 18, 2016)
- Stefany Cambra's Finding Myself in Bed from Proper Hijinx (June 1, 2016)
- Acoustic Nerves/Therefore, a collaboration by Dean Terry and University of Texas at Dallas artists, at the Texas Theatre (June 9, 2016)
- Checking in with playwright Jonathan Norton (July 22, 2016)
- Lake Simons and John Dyer's visual theater adaptation of Don Quixote at Hip Pocket Theatre (Aug. 6, 2016)
- The Third Dallas One-Minute Play Festival, presented by One-Minute Play Festival and Kitchen Dog Theater (Aug. 8, 2016)
- Justin Locklear's Dreamless at the Ochre House (Aug. 15, 2016)
- Jeff Swearingen's Old McDonald's Farm: A Children's Fable about the Obama Presidency at Fun House Theatre and Film (Aug. 17, 2016)
- Iv Amenti's Deep Remembrance Project in the Deep Ellum Unplugged series (Sept. 13, 2016)
- Jessica Cavanagh's Self Injurious Behavior, as a staged reading, performed at Theatre Three's Theatre Too! (Sept. 15, 2016)