Thursday, October 20, 2016

Bella, An American Tall Tale

This week, on my vacation, I went to see Bella, a musical comedy about an African American woman in the Wild West of the 1870s. She takes a train from Tupelo, Missisissippi to reunite with her Buffalo soldier sweetheart in the New Mexico, but she encounters colorful characters and has over the top adventures. It's also an antidote to whitewashed history, showing that the West was full of Mexican vaqueros, black Exodusters, Native Americans, and Chinese laborers who built the railroads. (The Chinese character does mention his people building the railroads, but he says that he himself is a rich cattle baron's adopted son; Tommie Haw is a wildly sexy fantasy in Bella's dream one night.) Many actors play multiple roles, singing and dancing.

The musical is partly inspired by the story of Saartjie Baartman, too, the South African woman who was tragically exploited in European freak shows, used as a scientific specimen to support theories about racial inferiority, then dissected and displayed in museums until 1974. Thankfully, her remains were finally sent home to be buried with honor in 2002. Like Baartman, Bella has a big booty, and her grandmother boasts that they are descended from an itty-bitty girl who came from Africa, but never forgot her pride in her roots. (The itty-bitty girl's spirit is depicted as a woman in a body stocking suit probably similar to Baartman's actual costume in her shows.) In the way of tall tales, Bella's booty has magical powers, saving her from a white man's attempt to rape her, as well as a train robbery and a huge fall down the mountainside. Unfortunately, Bella is exploited for her booty too, getting talked into joining a circus for fame and fortune, only to discover that she will be a primitive Princess Ooga-Booga "captured" from darkest Africa and turned into white man's servant. Fortunately, Bella is able to turn the tables to change the degrading act and regain some of her dignity, but the show business life costs her dearly, and she turns to drugs and alcohol (as I think Baartman did in her final days). But Bella finds redemption with help from her family, and the story stays upbeat, celebrating the diversity of forgotten American history.

The songs were really great, with wonderful performers. They even got a standing ovation in the end. Also, they mentioned that the show is going to New York in the spring 2017. I wonder if the whole cast will go? I wish them luck.

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