The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin
Years before she won a Tony Award playing an African American who discovers her self-worth as she grows up in a changing America, LaChanze played another African American woman who discovered her self worth as she grew up in a changing America. Kirsten Child's The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin might never be confused with The Color Purple, but its themes of self-acceptance and independence ring just as true as they do in the Broadway hit. Performed in 2000 at Playwright's Horizons, Bubbly Black Girl is a saucy, sassy and cheerfully satirical look at how African American women have been defined (by others and themselves) from the 1960's to the 1990's (the generation immediately following those of The Color Purple). Ghostlight Records recently brought the all-star cast back together, and preserved the score in a lovely recording that aptly captures both the smart humor and poignant drama of the musical.
Using a wide variety of contemporary musical styles, the show follows the life of Viveca Stanton, a well-adjusted child in 1963 Los Angeles. Unlike Celie, Viveca is self-confident and proud of herself and her heritage, facing the conflicts of the era with optimism rather than anger. Encouraged by her parents, she believes that police wouldn't randomly arrest African-American men without evidence, that the best dancer in ballet class should get the lead role rather than the lightest-skinned, and that children of all ethnic backgrounds can get along. As she grows and becomes aware of the injustices around her, she must learn to reconcile her hope and faith in the world with the harsh realities of racism and sexism.
With tongue planted firmly in cheek, Childs uses upbeat music and sharp humor to prevent the story from getting bogged down in the very intense emotions that could easily have overwhelmed it. The second number on the album expresses a child's horror at the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabamabut presents it as an upbeat counterpoint-patter song sung between the girl and her blonde doll. Not that Childs trivializes the emotional damage racism inflicts on a child: when Viveca insists to a friend that "Black is Beautiful," she is rebuffed with "What they really mean is/ 'Say it loud, I'm black, but proud/ I'm not the blackest in the crowd.'"
Such stinging commentary is certainly bitter medicine to swallow, but Childs' music is more than a mere spoonful of sugar to balance it. Using era-appropriate numbers to set scenes and moods, Greek-chorus-esque songs to expand on themes and metaphors, and witty banter and rececitive, Childs' score makes the album exciting and genuinely fun to hear. Likewise, the cast does much to keep the album's overall energy up, and any recording that features such Broadway luminaries as LaChanze, Felicia Finley, Adriene Lenox, Shayna Steele, Jonathan Doukuchitz, Darius de Haas, and Natalie Venetia Belcon is pretty much guaranteed to be a delight. LaChanze, singing in almost every number, shines vocally, going from enthusiastic child to jaded woman, and conveying many complex emotions as her character matures.
While not groundbreaking or revolutionary, Bubbly Black Girl is still an excellent addition for any theatre-lover's CD collection. The songs are exciting and engaging, the story is intelligent and interesting, and the performances are excellent. Most of all, it's a genuinely fun listen, enlightening as it entertains. Audiences of all ages and tastes can enjoy.