BWW Review: CSULB Performs Theatrical Alchemy on THE BUBBLY BLACK GIRL SHEDS HER CHAMELEON SKIN
(Pre-Review Confessional: A while back I found myself working as a casting assistant on a music video. One of the roles we had to fill was "Bored DMV Employee", and suffice to say we ended up with about twenty identical looking overweight black women sitting in Space Station Studio's waiting room. The audition largely consisted of them giving us mad "tude." I didn't feel great about that, but it's no secret that casting directors are pretty much professional stereotypers...)
Cal State Long Beach is shining the spotlight of truth on casting bias with Kirsten Childs' 2000 musical, THE BUBBLY BLACK GIRL SHEDS HER CHAMELEON SKIN. The musical follows a friendly, outgoing, ambitious, well-to-do, middle-class black girl named Viveca (Timanii Meeks), over three decades as she works to make a name for herself as a professional dancer. During her childhood, Viveca's black friends accuse her of being an "Oreo" -- black on the outside but white on the inside.
Viveca is naïve to the reality of racial biases, and even in the face of extreme Klan racial violence maintains her warm bubbly charm. To quote a (really stupid) song from the show that I swear wasn't written by an eight year old, "[She lives her] LIFE IN A BUBBLE, FLOATING OVER TROUBLE SMILING PLEASANTLY! ALL CAUGHT UP IN SOME FANTASY!" (More about the lyrics later.)
As an adult, Viveca finally makes it to New York, and ends up selling her integrity to appease a flamboyantly racist stage director, named Director Bob (Alexander Chiu), and she ultimately gets cast in his show. Viveca learns along the way that no matter what choices she makes, or who she tries to portray, her character will ultimately be guided by her skin color. The direction she receives is either to play her characters "more black" or "less black". To quote Dr. Jaye Austin Williams, the show's director, Viveca is living in "a nightmare from which there is no possibility of awakening." Simply put, she'll always be black.
How Was It?
(Full Disclosure: The author of this article is CSULB Theatre Arts alumnus. He does not personally know anybody affiliated with this production, and has not been affiliated with the school for several years.)
SHORT ANSWER: Cal State Long Beach practiced two hours of theatre alchemy spinning Kirsten Childs' manure of a script into pure gold. Hats off to Dr. Jaye Austin Williams, and the unbelievably talented cast and team of designers for turning this banal, unoriginal, and poorly written story into something I truly enjoyed.
Special attention should be given to the outstanding choreography of Asha Kamali Blankinship, which was simple enough for cast members of varying ability to easily pick up, but also clever, witty and insanely entertaining. I was blown away by the utter simplicity and power of her work. It was truly remarkable, and dare I say Broadway caliber?
LONG ANSWER: (It's worth noting that almost 100% of my beef with this show involves Kirsten Child's banal script and cringeworthy juvenile lyrics, which Cal State Long Beach had no hand at creating. The show is over 17 years old, never made it even close to Broadway, has been universally panned by audiences and critics, yet theatres still insist on programming this train-wreck into their seasons. I have no idea why. Maybe the rights are cheap?)
I find it interesting that in the very first sentence of her Director's Notes, Dr. Williams has the foresight to defend Childs' work against the charge that it is "simple-minded". Dr. Williams believes that the "seeming simplicity" urges the audience to read the work more deeply. Although she makes a good-effort argument, I'm not convinced.
There is nothing remotely earth-shattering in this show, either on the surface or in the subtext. The themes and morals have appeared ad nauseam in far more entertaining and better-written works of art. Couple that with the fact that the songs all sound like they were plagiarized from elementary school music students, and you end up with not just a weak libretto, but a mortally wounded one that should be put out of its misery.
"I am in dance class,
I love to be here doing lots of movement.
I am getting good now,
Ms. Payne my teacher says I show improvement."
Sure, these are elementary school aged students singing this, but that's no excuse. Tell Tim Minchin and the creators of MATILDA THE MUSICAL that you can't give school-aged children witty, yet age-appropriate, lyrics. Tell that to Martin Charnin and the creators of ANNIE and see how quickly it takes for Charnin to backhand you with his ring hand. Charnin's a BAMF; don't mess with that mofo.
And let's not forget some of these other gems:
"War is not good
For children and other living things!"
Those lines just don't pack the same punch as Edwin Starr's "War! Huh! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!"
"Who is that Bubbly Black Girl?
There's no chip on her shoulder
She's so well assimilated
She's the pride of the black race!"
That last one didn't even try to rhyme! Nor did it try to fit into a musical melody, or employee any poetic conventions whatsoever for that matter.
Wherever you are in life, just remember that Kirsten Childs actually gets paid royalties for this garbage. If she can get her show produced, so can you.
Needless to say, this isn't a musical that you will be rushing to purchase the Original Cast Recording for. Yet, this is where the real impressive feat comes in: Cal State Long Beach still managed to deliver a superb show that I can, without any reservations, highly recommend.
The entire cast dedicated themselves to strong performances. The amazing personalities of the actors creeped into their highly-watchable characters, and made up for whatever might have been lacking in the script. Timanii Meeks committed to an exceptionally spirited performance, embodying the bubbly, yet strong, essence of Viveca. Meeks brought an optimistic innocence that you just had to love and root for. Malik Proctor played Viveca's childhood best friend, Gregory, with a friendliness and charm that stole the stage and audience's heart.
All other performers were "ensemble" members who wore many different hats and portrayed several different supporting characters. Some standouts of the night included Jaime Martinez, who proved to be an exceptional and highly entertaining dancer. You can't help but focus on his energetic and on-point moves during every dance number. Ruby Morales' beautiful voice captivated the audience during "Brave New World". KaleigH Clark and Kim Pernia served as a hilarious personification of Viveca's mean spirit and catty doll. Alexander Chiu played Director Bob with an obnoxious flair that made him the character you loved to hate. Donge Tucker brought the audience to riotous tears as the "sensitive" Larry who constantly threatened to kick people's a**.
Sydnie Johnson and Sarah Regli both played dance instructors with a high degree of believability and commitment. Nicole Royster portrayed a mean granny (with a dazzling dress, I might add, courtesy of Costume Designer Sara Lindsey) who stole the end of the show. Ramon Edwards played Viveca's world weary dad in a way that made you want to both shake your head in disapproval at his cynicism and nod it up and down at the truthfulness of his harsh advice. Barbara Vides, Jennifer Elrod, and Tommy Nguyen all wore different hats in the ensemble and switched from character to character with incredible ease.
The outstanding choreography of Asha Kamali Blankenship put the cherry on top of this spectacular experience. The magic of Blakenship's choreography rests in its simplicity. The moves were easy enough that the cast (who I'm sure varied in dance experience) could easily pick them up, but they also packed a really strong punch. They were witty, creative, and an absolute joy to watch. The utter genius of Blakenship's simple, yet powerful, funny, and sometimes even slap-stick choreography reminded me of Casey Nicholaw's work.
When it was all said and done, Cal State Long Beach committed to such a great show, the triteness of the script stopped bugging me. It was far too easy to just sit back and enjoy the ride, and that's exactly what I did. It was two hours well spent.
The only criticism I have of CSULB's production relates to a rather severe technical problem. The volume of the live band and the performer's mics were off balance to the point I sometimes could not hear a single word that was being sung. During "Smile, Smile", for example, the upright bass completely drowned out all of the lyrics. However, while not being able to hear the singers is a big problem, it is also a really easy fix, and one I am sure CSULB will make, if they haven't already.
Who Should See It?
Everyone! It's a fun way to kill a couple of hours. There is some profanity, prop weapons, and minor drug use, so maybe leave the really young ones at home (unless you're a cool parent, then bring them).
How to See It
THE BUBBLY BLACK GIRL SHEDS HER CHAMELEON SKIN runs through March 25th at Cal State Long Beach's University Theatre. Tickets are $25 for general admission and can be purchased here.
Cal State Long Beach is located at 1250 Bellflower Blvd, Long Beach, CA 90840 (this address will take you to the center of campus, the Theatre Department is located upper-campus on the corner of 7th Street & East Campus Drive). Parking is available in Lot 7.
More Pretty Pictures
Photos by Kip Polakoff