Review: ‘Bubbly Black Girl’ Lets a Smile Be Her Camouflage

Alas, it is only a dream. Immediately afterward, another black girl calls Bubbly a “pathetic Oreo” and worse. (It’s true that she prefers her white Chitty Chatty doll to the black one her parents conscientiously foist on her.) Soon, heading home from a party with a boy (Korey Jackson), she watches in horror as he is accosted by the police for the crime of walking while black.

This is not dramaturgy that the musical theater bible approves. Showbiz satire, as when Bubbly eventually moves to New York and auditions for a creepy, Bob Fosse-like genius, should not mix with the unvarnished pain of racism in America. The four girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing in 1963 loom large in Bubbly’s imagination and in the director Robert O’Hara’s pungent, often hilarious production.

Yet to advert to rules of tonal consistency is to impose an external, puristic point of view on material that is wonderfully motley and personal. Profound questions of identity and silly ones of stardom mix in Bubbly’s life, just as they did in the life of Ms. Childs, who was herself a dancer, having performed in several Bob Fosse shows, including “Chicago” and “Sweet Charity,” on tour and on Broadway. When she wrote “Bubbly Black Girl,” Ms. Childs did not even know how to notate music, so she developed her own method of composition, involving the complicated layering of tracks she sang on a series of cassette tapes.

The result, for all its idiosyncrasy, rings authentic. Because Bubbly, whose real name is Viveca, is as varied on the inside as her hairstyles are on the outside, Ms. Childs gives her (and the rest of the cast) songs that high-tail from R&B to jazz to gospel to Broadway. Each style is completely appealing, if perhaps too quickly discarded, much as Bubbly’s experiments with various ways of representing her blackness are dropped, one by one. It isn’t until after the Fosse character says, during an audition, “Don’t go white on me, Bubbly,” that she finally understands that she can’t outrun her skin. This leads to the score’s most traditional and least convincing song, an 11 o’clock revelation number that tries too hard.

Until then, and again afterward in a brief coda, the audience is the beneficiary of Bubbly’s (and Ms. Childs’s) eagerness to charm. As a result, we get some terrific pastiche numbers that play on black styles but have little to do with specifically black identity. Julius Thomas III, as a man Bubbly…

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