Southern musicals seem to have found a home in Dallas. One year ago, the Dallas Theater Center presented the world premiere of Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical. The Dallas Opera produced its first ever musical, Show Boat — a collaboration with Dallas Black Dance Theater — in May.
Now DTC will bring another world premiere musical to its stage: Bella: An American Tall Tale, written by Kirsten Childs, a co-commission with Playwrights Horizons, where it will appear in spring 2017. While Moonshine was a hokey, corn ball and somewhat whitewashed lark based on the TV show, Bella has roots in actual history more akin to DTC’s other world premiere musical Stagger Lee. Like Stagger Lee, Bella is an explosive musical take on black history. Lee followed the mythical outlaw; Bella traces the tale of a “larger than life” young woman on a secret mission.
Childs divulged her inspiration for her heroine, an unlikely inspiration for a black Western. One day, while walking down the street in New York, Childs saw a couple. The woman’s magnificent beauty and enormous behind caused Childs to do a double take. As she followed behind the couple, she saw every single passerby do the same double take. And she knew she had to write a story about a woman who was larger than life.
“She was so comfortable with her big butt!” Childs says. “All these men found her attractive; no one could keep their eyes off her.”
Childs was no history buff; in fact it was one of her worst subjects in school, she claims. What started as an examination of the standards of beauty for women became a real lesson in American history. When she started researching the late 19th century, when Bella is set, she realized how present black people were in the old West.
“They were this part of actual history and I had no idea,” Childs reflects on the history she learned in school, and that black people were never quite a part of it the way she learned.
Childs’ goal is to educate her audiences on what she calls a “great, troubling country”; to present a part of American history that has been completely ignored in education is troubling in and of itself. Childs says the climate of race and politics in America right now is the perfect time to “clean house.”
“I don’t know how to take it all right now. Is this wound going to heal or fester? We must bear witness to the things we as a country have swept under the rug. And maybe that’s a good way to look at who we are.”
By examining a forgotten portion of history, Childs hopes it will help shine some light on who we are as Americans. Looking at the past helps us learn and go forward; but it won’t work if we don’t know it’s there, she says.
After leaving Los Angeles, she found work in New York as a dancer, but her heart was in the theater. Childs got her start working in “all black musicals” in New York. These were productions meant for black people. During her work, she met incredible singers, dancers and actors, and she was shocked at how brilliant they all were. She decided to write her own musical.
Childs says she knew anything she wrote would be pretty terrible; and that was the plan.
“I knew if I did it, someone would come along and say it was terrible and they could do it better. And then we would have people writing musicals for black people and featuring them!”
Childs quickly learned no one wanted to work with her if she couldn’t notate. So she learned on the job. Her friends with musical training started teaching her so she could be a proper composer.
Childs is a seasoned writer, composer, playwright and author, as well as an adjunct professor at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. She also wrote the lyrics for DTC’s 2013 Fly.
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Childs says she doesn’t want the audience to know what’s coming next in Bella. “The journey is fascinating. There’s a mix of everything: funny, scary, serious,” she says. In the end, she just wants you to leave the theater knowing about a part of history she didn’t even know existed.
The presence of non-white people in the post-Civil War American West is surprising. Childs points out how she learned how many black people settled in North Dakota. She also discovered the story of a millionaire Asian cattle rancher.
“To diminish one group diminishes all of us. How can you really know everything? You aren’t a completely whole person if you don’t know the breadth of this nation.”
See Bella: An American Tall Tale through Oct. 22 at the Wyly Theatre, 2400 Flora St. Tickets are $20 to $70 at attpac.org.