The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin, Howard University Department of Theatre Arts’ current musical production, is a champagne toast to keeping it real. Authenticity and self-acceptance are heavy themes explored during an ironically light-hearted romp through twenty-seven (27) effervescent musical numbers. Written by Kirsten Childs, directed and choreographed by Patdro Harris, a 1996 Helen Hayes Award recipient for Outstanding Choreography, and under the musical direction of Bert Cross II and Darius Smith, The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin world-premiered in 1999 in New York City.
“Love Yourself in the Dance – Love the Dance in Yourself,” words written on a stage placard, sum up the message of this musical delight that transcends race and finds common ground in self-discovery. A musical memoir, the show transports you through the fifties, sixties, and into the nineties through the story of Viveca “Bubbly” Stanton, a young, middle-class black girl trying to find her true identity in a world where racism, sexism, and classism permeate every facet of her existence. This is a harsh world that Bubbly tries to escape by creating a self-protective bubble and a people-pleasing, perpetually-smiling Oreo façade. She defends her to decision to try to be white declaring, “Oreos are damn good cookies.” Time and experience lead to the inevitable, however, and Bubbly’s jaunts through rejection, disappointment, self-loathing, and self-denial bring her to a happy denouement where she defiantly sheds chameleon vestiges of inauthenticity and presents herself as herself – empowered, proud, and finally real. Cornrows and all.
Center-stage and on-stage for almost every scene, Birgundi Baker who plays Viveca “Bubbly” Stanton, the main character, is an immense talent sure to be spotted on Broadway someday soon. The proverbial triple threat, Birgundi sings with belt-it-out power, dances with precise classical technique but hip-hop verve and acts with believability, personality, and expressive charm. She’s an absolute winner who carries this show from beginning to end. The role requires stamina and spunk and Birgundi is up to the task. She is incredible to watch and has charisma to give away.
There’s an outstanding cast of 18 other characters who, all except for Bubbly, play multiple roles. Standout performances include Ryan Swain (Prince/Cosmic/Policeman/Ballet Teacher/Director Bob) who plays Bubbly’s cosmic white-boy hippie lover who just as quickly flits off into La La Land. Ryan’s portrayal is a hilarious play on Hair, complete with shaggy, long blonde wig expertly disheveled by Wig and Hair Designer, Greg Bazemore.
Alexia McGowan (Emily/Sophia) tries to teach Bubbly the moves and the grooves of being black as she struts her own stuff with a “speak- to- the- hand” attitude that’s delightfully funny even while stereotyping black women in the worst kind of way!
Bryan Archibald (Gregory/Daddy 3) plays Bubbly’s childhood sweetheart who grows to be a young man who loves Bubbly and helps carry her through trials and travails singing along the way in a mellow croon. Bryan’s got a great voice.
“Granny,” portrayed by Jasmine Ayani, gives a showstopper singing/dancing performance in “Granny’s Advice,” a raucous rant to her womanizing grandson. Jasmine has true star quality and plays this part with a maturity far beyond her young years.
Scenic Designer Michael C. Stepowany made full use of the ample stage of the Ira Aldridge Theater to create simple center moving panels with a dramatic double staircase and elevated rise that allows the performers and the live five-person musical ensemble (Bert Cross II, Darius Smith, Bibi Mama, Hamilton Hayes, and Demetrius Whitsey) to make best use of a big stage.
Lighting/Sound Designer TW Starnes’ dramatic bright lights and soft, shadowy hues lent just the right mood in the right places.
Costume Designer Reggie Ray’s fashions creatively captured the forty-year span of the story line with distinct and apparent changes reflecting the apparel of the times—from flower-child tie-dyes to black leather hot pants.
Bubbly was an entertaining show. At my performance – in the beginning scenes – the dialogue was far too rapid-fire to be understandable and many of the lyrics of the early numbers were lost. Nerves perhaps. Also, some off-key singing – despite the cast’s wonderfully strong voices – was an ongoing distraction. I was not a fan of the score, although the singing was great throughout by the terrifically talented students of Howard University’s Department of Theatre Arts. The show was well-rehearsed – never missing a beat. The hard work and commitment was so evident during the performance and so was the non-stop dedication to the pure art of American Musical Theater.
Running Time: One hour and forty minutes, without an intermission.
The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin plays through March 8, 2014, at the Ira Aldridge Theater at Howard University – 2455 Sixth Street NW, in Washington, DC.Tickets may be purchased at the Ira Aldridge Theater Box Office, or by calling (202) 806-7050.