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Bubbly Black Girl, Oak vs. Mandy, and the Continuing Relevance of Race on Broadway (and the World)

 

On the day I saw Nikki James give a star turn in “Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin,” the Off Center Encores two-day revival of the musical by Kirsten Childs that is in part about the challenges facing a black performer, the producers of “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet” announced that Mandy Patinkin would take over the role of Pierre for three weeks starting August 14, replacing Okierete “Oak” Onaodowan. Oak Smash, as he’s nicknamed, an actor who was in the original cast of “Hamilton,” had assumed the role just on July 11th (taking over, after an unexpected delay, from Josh Groban) and was scheduled to perform through September 4. But, in an effort to boost ticket sales, which had declined after Josh Groban’s departure, the producers were ending Oak’s already brief run three weeks early.
Most publications hurrahed Patinkin’s return to Broadway after 17 years. But Broadway Black observed: “…the abrupt replacement of [Oak’s} role to boost ticket sales raises questions about how Black actors are valued and supported within Broadway.”
Prominent voices agreed on social media

(Tony nominee for Shuffle Along)

In response to the outcry, Mandy Patinkin announced, in an e-mail to the Times and a series of four Tweets, that he was withdrawing from the role:
“My understanding of the show’s request that I step into the show is not as it has been portrayed and I would never accept a role knowing it would harm another actor. I hear what members of the community have said and I agree with them. I am a huge fan of Oak and I will, therefore, not be appearing in the show.”

But Oak has announced he’s still leaving August 13.

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The controversy gave added resonance to Kirsten Child’s semi-autobiographical musical, making ‘Bubbly Black Girl’ if anything even more relevant now than it was when it debuted at Playwrights Horizons in 2000 starring LaChanze.

Nikki James portrays Viveca Stanton, nicknamed

Bubbly, a sunny middle class black child living in L.A. withdreams of being a dancer – and also of being white, like her favorite doll, blonde, blue-eyed Chitty Chatty. Nearly everything in her world as we see her growing up encourages her in her second dream, if not her first. She learns about the bombing death of four little girls in Birmingham from Gregory (Korey Jackson), the little boy next door, who taunts her that she looks just as ugly as one of the victims. A teacher tells a black classmate, “act your age and not your color.” A police officer accosts her and Gregory for no reason on the street outside her home, singing a chilling refrain:

You have the right to remain silent
Remain silent remain silent
Remain silent remain silent
Hands up against the wall
You’re about to take a fall

Even her mother, who talks about black pride, insists she straighten her hair.
In dance class, Bubbly gets an early lesson in the racial politics of casting. The teacher, deliciously named Miss Pain, picks the light-skinned Yolanda to dance the princess. Bubbly is cast as the dancing Bramble Bush. Her classmate Emily had warned her in song:

You’re pathetic if you’re figurin’ that darker skin
will ever help you win
Now you can be the court jester,
the scullery maid, or the monster

When she moves to New York to become a dancer – “a place where f—ked-up folks can make their dreams come true” — director Bob (Josh Davis) tells her during an audition “Don’t go white on me, Bubbly.”
Bubbly then shares with us her inner monologue: “Okay – don’t panic – black, black, black, black, black, black…lot’s of black people in the South …okay…Southern accent, but not like a slave…’cause If I do get this job, I don’t want to offend the few black people that are gonna be in the audience any more than I have to…”

Her blackened second try brings down the house.

By the end of “Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin,” Bubbly sheds her ever-smiling persona, and her nickname. After another audition in which she is no longer trying so hard to please other people, Director Bob tells her: “For this show, I need you to give me something a little less…dark.”

She replies: “You know, for the longest time, I’ve been trying to do exactly that— be a little less dark. But I can’t run away from who I am anymore. And I don’t want to.”

Viveca winds up opening her own dance studio. Kirsten Childs, who danced for Bob Fosse on Broadway and on tour (Director Bob is an obvious, satirical stand-in for Fosse), has become a composer and playwright, whose latest musical “Bella An American Tall Tale” was at Playwrights Horizon this season,)

One of the most remarkable aspects of Childs’ debut musical is that the racism that Bubbly witnesses and experiences is woven into a show that is full of satire, given hilarious expression in this production by the director, Robert O’Hara, who knows a thing or two about satire (as a playwright of such edgy comedies about race as Bootycandy and Barbecue.) But the satire is folded into an all-around entertainment. Childs melodic songs range from jazz to funk to gospel to Broadway ballads. And though Off-Center Encores is supposed to be a concert version of old Off-Broadway shows, another highlight of this production was Byron Easley’s choreography.

The show at City Center, in another words, was a triumph and a delight in every way. And, like Oak in The Great Comet, it’s a shame it had such a brief run.

 

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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