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Essay

The American Voice: Reclaiming the Myth

By Kent Nicholson, Director of Musical Theater

Photos by Joan Marcus.

At the end of the 1999/2000 season, Playwrights Horizons premiered the first musical written by Kirsten Childs. The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin debuted to warm praise and hailed a new voice in musical theater. In it, Kirsten introduces us to Viveca, the bubbly girl of the title, a young African American woman with dreams of Broadway. One could be forgiven for assuming that the story of Viveca was a parallel to Kirsten’s own. Having grown up in Los Angeles with dreams of being a Broadway dancer, Kirsten eventually ended up in New York dancing Fosse’s choreography with Chita Rivera in Chicago and on screen with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in See No Evil, Hear No Evil. Along the way, though, she also worked at Merrill Lynch and the United Nations. Her evolution as a musical theater writer could be seen as a journey in search of an identity. Indeed, identity plays a crucial role in all her work.

A very personal search for identity wrapped in traditional musical comedy structure.

Bubbly Black Girl begins in Los Angeles in 1963. As Viveca plays with her white dolls and dreams of being like her idol, Gwen Verdon, she also muses about the notorious bombing of a church in Birmingham where several black girls of Viveca’s age were killed. If so many people are saying “black is beautiful,” she wondered why are young girls straightening their hair and dreaming of light skin? As Ben Brantley noted in his review for The New York Times, “It reminds us of the degree to which most children grow up accepting and measuring themselves by such stereotypes, in ways that both comfort and confine.” And yet, Viveca continues her bubbly ways as she gets herself to New York and becomes a dancer for “The Director” (a character modeled on Bob Fosse) but also discovers who she can really be along the way. A very personal search for identity wrapped in traditional musical comedy structure, the piece plays fast and funny, drawing on musical idioms that span the American canon, including musical theater, jazz, and ’60s-infused R&B. Bubbly Black Girl takes to heart the old adage “write what you know.” Kirsten explores just what it means to be a musical theater writer, as well as how her own search for identity might have larger meaning.

Her next piece, Miracle Brothers, takes the notion of identity one step further. In this fantastical tale, set on a plantation in Brazil four centuries ago, two river dolphins with the ability to shape-shift decide to live among humans, transforming themselves into two half brothers, one white, one black. As things develop — and inevitably go wrong — one brother becomes enslaved while the other remains free. Along the way there are pirates, fighting, and capoeira. If the piece feels far more theatrical than Bubbly, it also more directly deals with the legacy of slavery and the difference between black and white. As Variety said upon its premiere at the Vineyard Theatre, it’s “a tale of white privilege and black subjugation.” But lest we think Kirsten has forgotten her comedy roots, the piece also furthers her innate sense of sharp wit and danceable rhythms.

Kirsten’s subsequent musical Funked Up Fairy Tales highlights the beginnings of her exploration of themes that come to the forefront in Bella: An American Tall Tale. This family piece is exactly what the title implies: three “fractured” fairy tales told with Kirsten’s unique sense of humor and musicality. While it may not appear that this idea would be ripe for exploration of identity, in taking a closer look we see that Kirsten continues to explore these themes and begins to reclaim stories — in this case, little-known ones from Germany and France — for a different age. In the first, a childless couple finds themselves adopting a hip hop loving pig. An ugly prince and princess help each other discover the beauty of each other’s souls in the second, and in the third a poor girl makes a devil’s bargain to find her prince. All of these stories are told by three urban fairies trying to gain their wings through the telling of these tales. The narrators, much like the characters in each fable, are trying to become the fullest versions of who they’re destined to be. Not only does Kirsten tell us four distinct tales of developing identity, she also reclaims European fairy tales for African American families. 

In Bella, Kirsten takes this reclamation project one step further. She confronts, head-on, the myth-making of the American West. More specifically, she confronts the myths that have been dominated by white men about how the West was “won.” Kirsten has created a tall tale whose central figure is not only a “big booty Tupelo gal,” but who also encounters many other stereotype shattering characters: Tommy Haw, a wealthy and historical Chinese rancher; The Exodusters, African American pioneers who were promised land in Kansas and persevered despite harrowing conditions; and, of course, the Buffalo Soldiers, black US Soldiers sent west primarily to fight Native Americans. Along the way, Bella finds ways of using her special assets (a magical booty and an unending optimist’s spirit) to fight for what’s right. Once she learns to accept herself, Bella claims her story and sells it. In doing so, she is the arbiter of her own identity. She gets to control who she is — so what if she stretches the truth a touch (or does she?). It’s her story to tell. 

But through it all, from Viveca to Bella, Kirsten’s own voice remains funny, smart, and biting; she never forgets she is writing musical comedies. What Ben Brantley remarked about her first work remains true of all her subsequent: “The production may go down like soda pop, but its bubbles are barbed.” Her pieces have grown as her writing has evolved from telling her own stories to reclaiming the stories of others. Still one thing remains constant: her desire for an honest and singular identity for her characters.