BWW Review: Gentlemen Prefer Booty in Kirsten Childs' BELLA: AN AMERICAN TALL TALE
The recent Signature Theatre revival of Suzan Lori-Parks' VENUS, based on the true story of Saartjie Baartman, depicted a 19th Century African woman who was subjected to exploitation because of white people's fascination with her prominent posterior. But the mood is considerably lighter over at Playwrights Horizons these days, where the title character of Kirsten Childs' joyfully old-fashioned, but sneakily subversive new musical, Bella: An American Tall Tale, is a 19th Century African-American woman who celebrates the attention her queenly derriere receives and uses it as a source of empowerment.
In her program notes, Childs writes that her inspiration for the show came one bright, sunny day while she was walking behind an African-American woman who she describes as "short and voluptuous" with "her most outstanding feature her gloriously shaped Venus Hottentot behind."
The playwright observed how every single man passing her by from the opposite direction (a variety of ages and ethnicities) stopped to stare at her from behind. There was no catcalling, just, as Childs describes it, visual proof of how "that zaftig little woman was an American dream girl, as sensual and iconic as Marilyn Monroe."
The story is set in the old west of the late 1870s, where people of color made up a significant percentage of the cowboys and settlers expanding the nation's boundaries. Director Robert O'Hara's jaunty production, choreographed with lively period flavor by Camille A. Brown, resembles a kind of saloon entertainment played out with picture postcard visuals by designers Clint Ramos (set), Dede M. Ayite (costumes) and Japhy Weideman (lights).
Ashley D. Kelley is an irresistible, moxie-filled charmer in the title role, hailed in song as the "Big Booty Tupelo Gal." After fighting off the lecherous advances of plantation owner Bonny Johnny (a dastardly Kevin Massey) with the power of her flatulence (Did I mention it's subversive?) she boards a train to meet with her fiancé, Aloysius T. Honeycutt (Britton Smith), a soldier in the Union army.
Her travels set up an episodic adventure where men cluster to her like moths around a flame, including a dashing caballero (Yurel Echezarreta), a sexy rancher (Paolo Montalban) and a sincere Pullman porter who can see beyond her behind (Brandon Gill).
American popular culture is loaded with stories of enticingly-figurEd White women who either coyly downplay or are completely oblivious to the reason why a parade of questionably motivated men try to win them. (Think "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" or "Little Me.") But Bella: An American Tall Tale hasn't got time for such delicacy, preferring to embrace the physical side of sexual attraction with a big, brash bear hug and playfully place the iconic African female physique on the pedestal where it belongs.