‘The Bubbly Black Girl’ in question is Viveca (aka ‘Bubbly’, by name and nature), growing up in a story that spans American history from the 1960s to ‘90s. Though it tips its hat to the tropes of the coming-of-age story (key romances, leaving home for a new city, exploring a passion for dance by night and working secretarial jobs in the day) the emphasis is on drawing Viveca’s experiences back to the macrocosm of racial and gender prejudices in the period. For example, moments after the opening number the nation is rocked by the Birmingham bombings in 1963, with Young Viveca (Karis Jack) wondering which of the young victims looks most like her. The show debuted in 2001 Off-Broadway, but as writer Kirsten Child asserts in the programme, the observations of the show are sadly no less pertinent.
The stages of Viveca’s life are joined together by a captivating score – Child pulls out a bewitching union of soul and Sondheim, hosting witty lyrics (Viveca spends her early career in New York “drowning in the secretarial pool” – unfortunately the song balance was askew the night I saw the show, meaning many of the counterpoint lyrics were lost). The songs are matched by slick choreography – so slick, in fact, that Viveca’s most superficial romance is too busy shimming to look her in the eye (the choreography of that number is a particular cynical joy, elsewhere in the show the movement is perky and period-appropriate – no doubt many audience members have had their first taste of ‘The Skate’, possibly the catchiest song of Child’s score).
The score is also one of the show’s main platforms for its deft planting of social commentary – the perky opening ‘Welcome to LA’ describes Viveca’s family as good folks “with not a welfare check in sight – she’s one of the good ones!”. There’s deft comedy in both the writing and execution; young Viveca’s princess fantasy includes video projections of the Cinderella Castle in Disneyland, neatly underscoring the commercialized influences on these dreams. Child’s writing occasionally flits into absolute surrealism (a nightmare sequence features lead vocals by Harriet Tubman and dancing KKK figures) that leaves much of the audience bemused, but for the most part it’s a genial and accessible humour. That said, the 13+ age rating is in place for a reason – there’s strong language throughout the show and some adult references.
Both Vivecas in Bubbly Black Girl are magnetic, Sophia MacKay (Older Viveca) deserving particular praise for multi-roling several characters in Act One (I spent several minutes of the interval reading through the programme to find this mysterious extra ensemble member). They’re unfortunately restricted by the slightly pinched voice they take on to show the link, Jack more so by having to channel high-pitched cute child for the first half hour, but when it drops they unleash wit and a gorgeous sound that does the varied score vibrant justice. The rest of the company provide a harmonious backing (both in character and voice) to Viveca’s story, with Matt Dempsey delighting the audience during scene changes with eye-opening dance.
It’d be wrong to finish without acknowledging Rosa Maggiora’s nifty design, demonstrating each period in its most famous attire (the start of the ‘70s is a Vietnam protest, with the cast all in true hippy form). The set begins as a sturdy L.A., made of blocks to frame Tim Reid’s narrative video design, before separating out to become the uncertain world of NYC.
Bubbly Black Girl is a show unashamed to be itself, especially in its more somber moments when Viveca can’t justify the peppiness she’s driven to show. It’s a captivating score and fine cast in a show that’s taken sixteen years to cross the Atlantic, Child’s “story of hope and humor about the ridiculousness of racism and intolerance”. And goodness knows we need one.