BWW Reviews: THE BUBBLY BLACK GIRL SHEDS HER CHAMELEON SKIN Takes Us On a Soulful Ride at the Strand
Part of the magic of the Strand's black-box theater space is its ability to completely redefine itself for each new production, and for the Baltimore premier of Kirsten Childs' Obie Award-winning The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin, the space again commits itself to what it does best: allowing the performance, and not the set, to tell the story. In fact, there's no stage. There's simply an open space that ends with the first row of seating, providing intimacy that sweeps the audience up and thrusts it into the midst of the action.
There's also something poignant about the theater's identity issues when it comes to this particular production, an autobiographical journey through a young black woman's coming of age as she struggles with defining who she is as both female and African American during decades when being either served as a distinct disadvantage. Framing heroine Viveca's life story is the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., that left four little girls dead in 1963, a tragic event that sends young Viveca, also known as "Bubbly" and portrayed boldly and absolutely flawlessly by a mesmerizing Ines Nassara, spiraling into confusion about what her skin color might mean for her.
But while the musical production--a collaborative effort between the Strand Theater Co. and StillPointe Theatre Initiative--tackles such weighty issues as racism, sexism, feminism and even terrorism, it is by no means a somber performance; to the contrary, it is jubilant, joyous, soulful and energizing, and the enormous (at least for this space), 12-actor cast shakes, shimmies and grooves along to the music of a five-piece live band through Childs' delightful lyrics and hilarious script, reminding us (and perhaps reminding herself) not to take things too seriously.
While there is power in big casts, there is also the risk of overwhelming, and the opening number in particular--perhaps with the extra oomph that comes with launching an evening's production--suffered from an audio imbalance. The band was too loud and the chorus too emphatic, completely overpowering actress Nassara's solo, especially with the layered lyrics and harmonies that characterize Childs' work. This happens unfortunately frequently throughout the show, especially when actresses Jacquelyn Clemmons and Zoe Kanter--who have beautiful voices but just can't seem to belt them out as commandingly as does Nassara--must sing over background vocals.
Kudos go to Nina Kauffman, who portrays young Bubbly's favorite long-haired, white doll Chitty Chatty with saccharine naiveté, notable dance prowess and a superb voice; to Jay Hargrove, who lends his beautiful, rich voice to solos as Bubbly's Daddy and, later on, love interest Lucas; and to Montel Butler, who has relatively small roles but nonetheless infuses his scenes with hilarity and hits a truly incredible falsetto. But even beyond the standouts, the cast is solid: Their voices and dancing are enchanting and full of verve, and on that barebones set with their simple costumes, they manage to sparkle.
As Bubbly grows up through junior high and high schools and heads off to New York City in the 1980s to follow her dreams of being the greatest dancer in the world, her hair ingeniously changes to match her self-identity--from a little-girl Afro puff to straight and sleek, back to a full Afro and so on. All the while, she faces the challenges of being considered "too white" or "too black," remarking, "There are too many black people who want to call you names and too many white people who want to blow you up."
This production is big and bold, and a large cast, complicated, cacophonous choral numbers and complex choreography are difficult to wrangle. Director Ryan Haase has managed to master it, bringing it together with little more than a few chairs as props and a spectacular mural as a backdrop. He's recognized in Childs' music, script and lyrics what the audience sees in the final production: a love of life, despite the odds, and an opportunity to celebrate, no matter what.
The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin previews through Feb. 13 and runs through Feb. 23 at the Strand Theater Co., 1823 N. Charles St. in Baltimore. Its next production, Colorism, opens April 18. For more information, visit www.strand-theater.org.