Set in the 1870s, Kirsten Childs’ musical adventure Bella: An American Tale takes the audience on the trip of a lifetime through the Wild West as Bella, a wanted woman of mythic proportions, attempts to escape her scandalous past and find her Buffalo soldier.
Featuring a book and score by Childs, Bella premiered Off-Broadway in 2017 with direction by two-time Obie Award winner Robert O’Hara (Bootycandy, The Brother/Sister Plays) and choreography by Camille A. Brown (The Fortress of Solitude). Now the original Off-Broadway cast has reunited for a cast album, available from Yellow Sound Label. Below, Childs breaks down her score and how much fun it was to write.
“BIG BOOTY TUPELO GAL”
The origin story of Bella is an American tall tale in itself.
Well, I mean, it did happen, but it was so ridiculously, eye-poppingly exaggerated that it naturally lent itself to the tall tale genre. I was walking down a New York street, on my way home to my apartment, when in front of me I spied a young African-American couple. The woman was tiny, with a well-proportioned hourglass figure and one of the biggest behinds I have ever seen on a human being. Every man that passed her stopped and turned and gazed admiringly and longingly at her backside. And when I say every man, I mean every man—poor, rich, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, young, old, gay, straight—if it was a carbon-based life form with XY chromosomes, apparently the laws of physics left it no option but to stop and marvel at that woman’s booty. Hers was an allure not linked to straight hair or light skin, or any of America’s tropes of so-called beauty, and she knocked those palookas over like so many tenpins.
I simply had to write a musical about what I’d just witnessed—a tall tale, in honor of the unbelievable absolutely true event that had just occurred. And the opening number would be the ballad of the “Big Booty Tupelo Gal,” introducing my tall-tale heroine Bella Patterson. When I first started writing the opening, Bella wasn’t in the number; all the other characters simply sang of her legend. But it soon became clear to me that, just like in the real world, it was time that a black woman took charge of telling her own damn story.
“THE LANGUAGE OF MY NOSE AND LIPS AND HAIR”
For Africans brought to the New World during the days of the slave trade, the only link to the past was the griot, or oral historian. But what happens to a people whose grasp on their cultural history is besieged not only by cruel forced separations but by the natural loss of memory due to aging? This song, sung by Bella’s grandmother (one of the fortunate souls whose lineage has blessed her with orally related memories of Mother Africa) is my plea to African-Americans in the New World to be proud of who we are, and who we’ve always been. It is also a reminder to never forget every wonderful and shameful aspect of this American crucible which has forged our strength.
“PRIVATE HUNNICUTT’S LETTER”
When I realized that the show was going to be a tall tale set in the Old West, I also realized I knew nothing about African-American history during that time period. After shaking my head and saying, “Mmh, mmh, mmh, ain’t that a damn shame?” I went off to the library to do research. I learned about the Buffalo soldiers, brave Black men who joined the U.S. Army to serve their country. When I came across letters to home written by some of the soldiers, I knew that the introduction of Bella’s soldier-boy sweetheart, Aloysius T. Hunnicutt, would be in a love letter he was writing to her while out on the western frontier.
“¡QUIÉN FUERA LUNA!”
This song between a Mexican vaquero (cowboy) and a Black mail-order bride was the most fun to dream up. As I’m writing this now, I realize that the model for this moment was born out of an experience I remember from long ago. When I was in my early teens, my sister Joy and I went to France with a group of Black and Asian young people (it was a special travel-abroad group deal for the children of Los Angeles Unified School District teachers). In France, Joy met and began dating a French boy named Hervé. It was a sweet summer romance that could have only happened in France; black and white interracial relationships were still not completely acceptable here in the States. Apparently Hervé wasn’t aware of that, because later that year he came to Los Angeles to see Joy. He and his crazy friends drove my sister and me around the city at the speed of light. I remember laughter and silliness and rapid-fire French. It was exciting, a little frightening, and so much doggone fun. In “¡Quién fuera luna!,” I wanted to create a similar time-out-of-time moment—a moment when two completely different cultures collide and the language of love sorts out all the differences.
“WHAT I WANT”
This song was inspired by all the wonderful songs Rodgers and Hammerstein created for their no-nonsense, straight-talking young heroines. Bella Patterson, for all her wild and fanciful imagination, wants the simple things in life: a home, a comfortable life, love, and someone with whom to share it all.
For a brief moment after the Civil War, African-Americans had the ability to participate as full citizens in the country, some even serving as elected government officials. But the rise of the Ku Klux Klan put a stop to that. The organization terrorized and murdered so many Southern Black folks that people decided to head west to settle in the state of Kansas where some of the towns they built remain to this day. These migrating Southerners were called Exodusters, and it’s quite likely Bella would have encountered some on her train journey to reunite with her sweetheart Aloysius. This song was inspired by a letter from an Exoduster woman to her relatives back down South.
“GAL OVER YONDER”
Nathaniel Beckworth, the train porter (and the third side of Bella’s love triangle) is based on the African-American cowboy-turned-Pullman-porter Nat Love. Nat’s last name (Beckworth) is a nod to the fur trader, rancher and explorer, James Beckwourth. The real Nat Love is a much wilder character than I’ve written him, though—I’d love to see a musical about him!
While I was doing some online research, I came across the Mai Wah Society in Butte, Montana. This is an organization dedicated to documenting the history of Asian people in the Rocky Mountains. One of the persons whose memory they are preserving is the 19th-century millionaire cattle rancher Tommie Haw. I was beyond excited to include an Asian-American cowboy in my cast of characters (and, like Nat Love, I’d love to see a musical about Tommie Haw!). I was even more excited when heartthrob Paolo Montalban said he was up for playing rip-snortin’, bronc-bustin’ Tommie Haw—because I had actually written this song with Paolo in mind. Which only goes to show, you should never stop dreaming big!
I remember writing this at the New York Public Library—the one with the lions. I was in some quiet research area, doing my best not to giggle and not succeeding.
“HEAVEN MUST BE TUPELO”
The biggest thrill and honor for me with regard to this song was when a man from Tupelo said this should be the city’s theme song. Are you listening, Tourism Board?
I wanted this song to have a light and lilting quality, to underscore how much of a fun game this character finds rape to be.
“ONE ASS TO ANOTHER”
I remember thinking when I was writing this song, “You cannot have a giant booty singing a comeuppance song to a rapist.” Apparently I thought wrong.
“BIDE A LITTLE TIME AT THE CIRCUS”
One of my favorite moments in the show was when Bella meets circus performer Gabriel Conyers. The interaction between Ashley D. Kelley (Bella) and Olli Haaskivi (Gabriel) always radiated innocence and pure joy.
“WHITE PEOPLE TONIGHT”
When I did the research about just how debasing and dehumanizing it would have been for a black person to join a 19th-century circus, I was appalled and saddened. And then I got mad as hell. And then I remembered an old Twilight Zone episode called “To Serve Man.” And then my sense of the absurd kicked in. And then I was aided and abetted by my director, the brilliant playwright/director Robert O’Hara. And thus, “White People Tonight” was born.
“TRAV’LIN’ THE WORLD”
This is just a silly, frothy number that was hella fun to write!
“MAMA, WHERE DID YOU GO?”
I wrote this song in Dallas specifically for the powerhouse that is Kenita R. Miller. It’s a continuation of the theme of fading memory, but it has become more specific: Bella’s mother (Mama) is losing her mother (Grandma) to dementia.
“DON’T START NO SHIT”
This song started out as a dignified song about the pride of being a Buffalo soldier. But as I learned more and more about the insults and indignities black soldiers had to endure from the white people they were sworn to defend, I put myself into the shoes of a young smart Mississippi boy from a nice family background. The character of Aloysius began to morph into a hothead with little patience for racism; the nobility of the song decreased, and the beat ramped up. And when choreographer Camille A. Brown created a visceral step dance for the soldiers, all niceness and nobility flew right out the window.
“NOTHIN’ BUT A MAN”
As a contrast to “Don’t Start No Shit,” I wanted to write a song exposing a man’s vulnerable, loving side. What I loved about Brandon Gill’s interpretation of Nathaniel’s character was how he allowed this song to be the first moment you had an actual glimpse into his soul.
“YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU GOT UNTIL IT’S GONE”
Only a force of Nature like NaTasha Yvette Williams could play a force of Nature. Her duet with Ashley D. Kelley as she implores Bella to accept the beauty of her black woman’s body is gorgeous and heartbreaking.
I wanted to write an anthem for a woman that says, “I reject the person someone tells me I must be, and I accept and revel in the person I am.” Bella has an incredibly big behind, and because this is a tall tale, she literally rids herself of it to please people who don’t look like her. And after she realizes how foolish she’s been, she sings (in fabulous Ashley D. Kelley style), “I want my booty back!” Perhaps it sounds silly, but what Bella’s really saying is, “I want my nappy hair back/my eye shape back/my nose shape back!” And even beyond that, what she’s really saying is, “I want my beauty back!” I wrote this song for a black woman, but I think women in every race can identify.
I guess the one thing I have to say about “Finale” is, it was a bittersweet moment to finally have an ending to the show. Going on this journey with Bella and all her wacky cohorts was a lifesaver, a joyful learning experience and a source of great comfort to me. It was a thrill to work again at Playwrights Horizons, to meet Robert O’Hara and Camille A. Brown, to work again with Daryl Waters, to hang out and crack up with friend and music director Rona Siddiqui, to marvel at the work of the design teams and the band. I never ceased dropping my jaw at the brilliance of Ashley D. Kelley and the rest of the wild Westerners (Marinda Anderson, Yurel Echezaretta, Brandon Gill, Olli Haaskivi, Kevin Massey, Jo’Nathan Michael, Kenita R. Miller, Paolo Montalban, Clifton Oliver, Gabrielle Reyes, Britton Smith, NaTasha Yvette Williams).
Every last one of those folks helped to make this tale, as Bella says, “wilder and louder, more full of color, too.”
And I swear it’s 110 percent, absolutely true.