Rosa Maggiora’s block set, while crisp and clean, seems altogether out of place for this production – too futuristic and alternative compared with the more traditional story of a girl that struggles with her identity in an ever-changing world. Viveca is a middle class black girl in 1960s L.A., growing up in a world where white is still good and black is still bad. Oblivious to the effect it has on her, she daydreams to her doll about all the great things she will accomplish once she’s all grown up into a mature, intelligent white woman. Kirsten Childs’ tale may seem shocking to today’s progressive audience, but highlights just how different things were only a few decades ago. Back then, being black was equivalent to being inferior; “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but colours go deeper” is the message that naïve, bubbly Young Viveca (Karis Jack) quickly learns as The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin.
Josett Bushell-Mingo for the most part successfully combines the two worlds of Viveca’s past and future. On the one hand the show resembles a sickly sweet musical (with nods to Hairspray) as Young Viveca navigates growing up in suburban L.A. She takes ballet, auditioning for lead dancer in the showcase but losing out to whoever has the lighter-coloured skin. An annoying scene of adults trying to act as children ensues, with some clever, a cappella orchestration by musical director Jordan Li-Smith clawing back a scrap of dignity from an otherwise saccharine series of events.
From child through to teenager, Viveca ends up dating a white hippy to the horror of her mother, who is determined for her daughter to grow up into a strong, black woman, proud of her heritage and yearning to emulate Harriet Tubman. As Mommy, Sharon Wattis exudes power in both her personality and her vocals, the stand-out performance of the night during ‘Pass The Flame’ and ‘Brave New World’. Young Viveca (Karis Jack), by contrast, is often nasal and reedy but comes into her own as her character develops and her innocence starts to disintegrate.
Viveca equally can’t fit in with her black friends in high school – her dancing, her personality, her opinions are all too white for the progressive underground. Despite her effervescent attitude, her only confidante is her white china doll, Chitty Chatty (Jessica Pardoe) – some ingenious characterisation slowly morphs Pardoe into the sassy, cynical, unhelpful doll that finally looks down at Viveca with disdain and disgust.
The move to New York transforms the show into something more intense and emotionally charged. Maggiora’s set has more relevance, angrily fitting with the cold heart of the skyscraper city. Bushell-Mingo flips the tone to match this, as Older Viveca (Sophia Mackay) finally sheds her immaturity and embraces who she is. Closely observed by the shadow of her younger self, Viveca is forced to deal with the prejudices and perceptions of society and Mackay’s voice develops to match. These songs are more soulful, touches of gospel thrown in for good measure. At times it’s all too over the top again. But Mackay’s voice has depth, her lower tones resounding through the theatre with a sultry clarity. Cast in her first set of stage performances (with nods to A Chorus Line), she is instructed ‘not to go white’ and finally emerges from a cocoon the best version of herself.
For a subject that has so many significant historical references, Childs show is ultimately fairly superficial. The big reveal is that the main character stops trying to be someone she’s not and embraces herself, her heritage and all that makes her bubbly. The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin is a production where the title gives away the plot and there is little more to be found.
The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin is playing Theatre Royal Stratford East until March 11.
Photo: Tristram Kenton