“Bella’ a playful pushback to erased histories
Portland Playhouse, the community theater space located in a former Black church at 602 N. Prescott St., celebrates the Black experience with the current production of “Bella: An American Tall Tale,” showing through June 5.
Portland Playhouse takes seriously its location in a former Black church in northeast Portland, concentrating real intention on bringing works that celebrate Black experience and stories. I just spent two weekend nights there and appreciated the energy of that work. Though one of the shows had a very limited run, you can catch the other—“Bella: An American Tall Tale”—through June 5.
The conceit of “Bella” is to be playfully curious about the variety of cultures and personalities that are omitted from the American story. As Toni Morrison wondered, “What intellectual feats had to be performed… to erase me (Black people) from a society seething with my presence?"
Black people, and others not raced as white, are indeed missing from much of American literature and storytelling.
Kirsten Childs, who wrote the book, music, and lyrics for “Bella,” pushes back on that erasure.
She didn’t set out to write a strictly historical account (though her lead character bears a certain resemblance to Sarah Baartman, a South African woman who had an abundant derriere and was exhibited as a freak show attraction in 19th-century Europe). Her main character is from Tupelo, Miss. and is running from the law for giving a white man what he presumably deserved. She boards a train headed for New Mexico, and blessed with her voluptuous booty and buoyant spirit, encounters a variety of adventures on the way.
Although Bella regularly emphasizes that her story is “110 percent true,” we are meant to realize that truth in this play is along the order of a “tall tale”—truth in the Paul Bunyan sort of way, but with a much more diverse variety of stories and characters centering on a Black woman whose attractiveness is unconventional. It’s a picaresque universe, laced with satire, in which aspects of the racism impacting the characters (like lynching, the Middle Passage, and sexual violence) are alluded to matter-of-factly in the midst of often broad comedy.
I can’t say I found the play itself to be wholly successful—the tone and storytelling feels wobbly at times. But I can’t fault this production; the entire cast and crew embraces the project with a whole-hearted abandon that serves the story well. Danielle Barker grabs the role of Bella with gusto, and she and the other cast members sing and dance with the enthusiasm Childs’ playful work demands. The Playhouse is a small space that puts the audience in closer proximity to the actors than is typical for a musical, but the design and choreography livens the space and the actors communicate joy and total commitment. I recommend approaching this show with as open a heart and as playful an imagination as the cast and crew are offering.
As a special treat earlier this month, the Playhouse presented a two-night run of “Zandezi,” a heart-stopping production from Zimbabwe that is enjoying a limited U.S. tour.
In a genre described as “physical theater,” two male actors with very minimal props pull the audience into a visceral investigation of life in prison. Though all theater is physical, in this production the body is the primary mode of communication; the actors enlist every cell to intuitively embody the small space of a prison cell, the agony of manual labor, and the relentlessness of long years spent in isolation from the outside world. I am grateful to have had the opportunity watch these talented men work and hope that audiences lucky enough to see them in the U.S. will not fall into the trap of thinking that what they depict is only representative of prisons in Zimbabwe. Our African brothers are holding up a mirror to prisons everywhere.
“Bella: An American Tall Tale” plays at Portland Playhouse through June 5.
Darleen Ortega is a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals and the first woman of color to serve in that capacity. Her movie and theater review column Opinionated Judge appears regularly in The Portland Observer. Find her review blog at opinionatedjudge.blogspot.com.