Kirsten Childs Empowers Musical 'Bella' In A Wild Way

Writer-composer Kirsten Childs was walking down the street near her Upper West Side home when she spied a couple: a small, muscular man and an African-American woman she describes as "zaftig, with a kind of Venus Hottentot behind." Childs immediately noticed the reactions of passers-by. "Every single man who walked by them in the opposite direction -- black, white, Hispanic, gay, Asian, straight, young, old -- turned and looked at her behind, and the looks were like, wow, that's wonderful," she recalls. "I thought to myself, you never see a story about a larger-than-life woman like that receiving that kind of response. So I went home knowing I just had to do something about this."

That body-positive encounter planted the seed for Childs' new musical Bella: An American Tall Tale, now at Playwrights Horizons.

Set in the late 19th century, the fabulist show centers on the title character (played by Ashley D. Kelley), a black woman of grand physical proportions who flees an incident in Tupelo, Mississippi and travels by train to the Wild West to reunite with her Buffalo Soldier boyfriend. The first half of Bella takes place en route, but soon "she has to escape again and, in the second act, she finds herself in a circus -- and that's all I'm going to say," Childs reveals slyly. 

The tall-tale tone of the empowering piece reflects the playful, upbeat, and often fantastical style Childs has displayed in Funked Up Fairy Tales (fairy tales with an urban attitude), Miracle Brothers (about dolphins and race relations in 17th-century Brazil), and Broadway dancer saga The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin, which won her an Obie Award and is set to be revived as part of New York City Center's Encores! Off-Center series this summer.