‘Bella,’ your new musical, is in the tradition of the tall tale like Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill. I understand you were inspired by seeing a full-figured black woman, so how did you get from seeing her to creating a tall tale of the Old West?
And I observed this phenomenon that just really knocked me out.
With this couple?
It was so amazing to me because clearly, there was a power in the way that she looked. And I thought I want to create something about this. So I thought, well, she has a larger-than-life figure, she’s a larger-than-life person, so a larger-than-life story is an American tall tale. And then because most American tall tales are set in the Old West, I want to write it about the Old West, but I want my heroine to be this woman, a woman of color with a big behind.
So I started to research the history of the Old West — which I’d never learned in the history books when I went to school. I discovered all these people who were amazing people. African-American mail order brides, a Chinese millionaire cattle rancher from Montana, Mexican cowboys, the Exodusters who were African-Americans from the South who migrated to the West for a better life — just many, many stories I’d never heard about that I wanted to honor, and wanted my heroine to meet them in my story
Bella heads West on a train in order to reunite with her buffalo soldier boyfriend, and she meets all these strange characters along the way. The tradition of the tall tale is comic exaggeration. How silly did you and your director want to go with this?
However, my director, Robert O’Hara – he’s an African-American playwright who writes wildly acerbic, witty, serious plays. I went to see ‘Bootycandy’ at Playwrights Horizon — and it was just out here in Fort Worth — and the minute I saw it I knew that his sensibility would be perfect for directing ‘Bella.’
So Bella has this very big behind. But for black women, that’s long been the target of racial mockery. You’re spoofing that stereotype, but were you concerned with people taking offense?
And I think there’s a little tongue-in-cheek, a little wink to the audience, to the people who have dealt with these kinds of issues before. I think they will understand what I am trying to do.
Bella is on board a train headed west, so she encounters all sorts of outlandish characters – including, not to give away too much, a kind of 19th-century, Asian-American Elvis Presley. Are they intended as satire?
That’s really all. I wrote it for my personal enjoyment and for creating something for people of color that was not just a musical revue or the all-black version of a white show but for the actors to inhabit their characters and actually do what for so long they have not been able to do. That really was my objective. Whether somebody is offended by what I wrote or if they’re delighted by it, I’m happy either way — because there’s a conversation that’s going to be started.
You are the bookwriter, lyricist and composer (and vocal arranger) for this show. That’s extremely rare. I mean, Lin-Manuel Miranda makes it look easy in ‘Hamilton,’ but on Broadway, we have to go back to someone like Meredith Willson, who did all that with ‘The Music Man’ back in 1957, almost sixty years ago. I mean, even the great Stephen Sondheim collaborates with a bookwriter. You did all that work with your earlier musical, ‘The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin,’ but how did you get started on this path?
And then finally, after graduating from the program, one of the composers in the program asked me, ‘Well, why don’t you just write the music you hear in your head?’ And I thought, ‘All right I will.’
And here we are.