Book, Music and Lyrics: Kirsten Childs
Director: Josette Bushell-Mingo
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
America in the 1960s isn’t a good time to be growing up if, like Viveca, you are young and black. When in 1963 she rebuffs her friend Gregory leading him to make an ill-judged comment about Viveca and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in which the church was blown up by the Ku Klux Klan killing four black girls the same age as her, and with society seeming to tell her that white is good and black bad, is it any wonder that she hides behind her glorious smile – helping to earn her the nickname of Bubbly – and her white, blonde talking doll, Chitty Chatty becomes her greatest friend and confidante? She tries desperately to fit in with everyone so why not hang out with cool white people – what does it matter that her black friends accuse her of being an Oreo Cookie; she herself says she wishes she were white.
Bubbly has a dream – to be the greatest dancer in the world. She moves to New York from her home in Los Angeles and sets about realising that dream, financing it with dull typing pool work. But has Bubbly forgotten what it is to be black? In an audition for Director Bob, he criticises her monologue as being too white. Can she do it black? Can she work out just who and what she really is? Well, yes she can, although it’s not entirely obvious what the spur is that leads her to shed that chameleon skin.
Kirsten Childs’ book, music and lyrics are honest and truthful about the times in which Bubbly lives. But they are never heavy: Bubbly’s enthusiastic naïveté is well-judged helping to leaven the casual racism she sees and experiences, for example, when Bubbly and a boyfriend are nearly arrested at the hands of heavy-handed police purely on the basis of their skin colour.
At the centre are the two actors playing Bubbly: Karis Jack plays her as the girl growing up Los Angeles while Sophia Mackay takes over in New York City – although the LA Bubbly is never far from the surface even in New York as we see the younger Bubbly observing her older self. Both Jack and Mackay have solid bluesy voices that want to burst out from behind their wide smiles.
Trevor A Toussaint brings to life Bubbly’s Daddy as a man who wants the best for her and tries, ineffectively, to protect her from the knowledge of what life is really like for black people at that time. He also has a beautifully rich deep voice. His song as to how to deal with difficulties, Smile, Smile, is delivered earnestly.
Ashley Joseph plays Lucas, the older Bubbly’s love interest. A fine dancer and singer, he is convincing as someone who, at least, respects his elders when he acts on his Granny’s somewhat unusual advice about love. Jessica Pardoe shows considerable versatility taking the rôles of Chitty Chatty and three different dance teachers in quick succession, each with her own quirks. Her high pure voice cuts through the surrounding noises. Chitty Chatty’s duet with young Bubbly, Sweet Chitty Chatty, while on the surface light, pretty and tinkly is ultimately almost uncomfortably poignant.
Josette Bushell-Mingo’s direction brings a lightness to proceedings while not shying away from the big issues addressed: some elements are especially disturbing to modern day sensibilities, for example, when a dance teacher asks a character to ‘act his age, not his colour’.
While the first act probably works better than the second dramatically, before the interval some of the singing does seem a little hesitant. After the interval, however, all the stops are fully out and powerful voices unleashed across the board.
The flow is helped enormously by Rosa Maggiora’s design – ostensibly a simple multi-levelled set of stage blocks but, with some expert use of screens, these change to move us between locations and to give us information and, at times, almost subliminal messages.
At its heart, The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin has a simple message for everyone, regardless of age, colour or background: to be truly happy, you need to be comfortable in your own skin.
Runs until 15 April 2017 | Image: Scott Rylander