This summer, people were buzzing about a little musical with a great big title: The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin, which opened at Off Broadway's Playwrights Horizons Theatre in June. The debut work of author Kirsten Childs (book, music, and lyrics), a former Bob Fosse dancer, The Bubbly Black Girl is a coming-of-age story about, yes, a young black girl with, yes, a bubbly personality, growing up in Los Angeles in the 1960s. Viveca goes through the usual rituals of parents, schools, and boys, always cheerfully; dreaming of becoming another Gwen Verdon or Chita Rivera, she moves to New York where she works for famous choreographer Director Bob (appearing in his new musical, Killer Diller) and has her heart broken by a smooth-talking guy. As all these experiences add up, she learns to accept that she is also an angry black girl.
As written by Childs and staged by Wilfredo Medina, The Bubbly Black Girl was children's theatre for adults; Viveca's story was presented in a deliberately naive style, spiked with wickedly knowing humor about the 60s, male-female relationships, and changing notions of black pride. This faux-naive approach extended to the design as well - David Gallo designed an all-white set, defined by a large, curved wall and a number of portals. As always, Gallo had a few surprises up his sleeve, including an office steno pool that popped up from the floor but, arguably, the heaviest responsibility was borne by lighting designer Michael Lincoln.
Lincoln, who came to the project later than the other designers, says "David Gallo and [Wilfredo Medina] took me through the show, discussing what scene after scene should be. David had already designed the white set - it was an exciting challenge, and terrifying, too." One big catch: Gallo and Medina had already decided not to use scenic projections - lighting would have to do the job of setting each scene.
In fact, there wasn't much that Lincoln's lighting didn't do. Employing an astonishing array of colors, the designer used Gallo's set as a canvas, providing a parade of vivid color washes that enlivened each scene and underscored the piece's fable-like nature. Furthermore, the designer's expansive use of patterns kept the play solidly grounded. The preset look featured a spinning bubble pattern (a sly reference to the title); after that, patterns provided the all the scenic clues the audience needed - a splash of palm trees for Los Angeles, a skyline for New York, windows for a classroom, arboreal breakups for Viveca's front yard, and on and on.
Thanks to the set's configuration and the dimensions of Playwrights Horizons, Lincoln was very limited in his choice of lighting positions. "The set wall wasn't translucent, so it couldn't be backlit," he says. "The show is almost exclusively lit from overhead, with the addition of a tailed-down boom and a rolling stand in each stage-left wing." Even so, with all the demands placed on the lighting, Lincoln's original equipment list came in way over budget; production manager Chris Boll helped him work out these issues to come up with a workable solution.
That solution included three High End Systems Studio Spots[TM], with custom patterns for certain effects, which also acted as refocusable specials. The other key component was the inclusion of 50 CXI Color Fusion scrollers, from Wybron; the CXIs use a subtractive color mixing process to give designers a wide range of colors - exactly what Lincoln needed here. "The CXIs were critical," he says. "They really are responsible for the look of the show, as far as I'm concerned."
Armed with these tools, Lincoln gave The Bubbly Black Girl a wide range of looks and effects. For a feverish fantasy sequence about the Ku Klux Klan, he created a hellish red and orange wall wash, with spinning flame patterns in Rosco gobo rotators. When Viveca sports her first Afro hairdo, Lincoln responded with a psychedelic color scheme. To create the look of an LA police helicopter prowling through Viveca's neighborhood, a Studio Spot provided a sinister white followspot that prowled the stage. In "Granny's Advice," a number spoofing Tina Turner's extroverted performance style, Lincoln covered the floor in yellow (to contrast with the singer's green costume); bulbs placed in an onstage couch performed a three-circuit chase sequence. In a darker, sadder number about the effects of name-calling ("Sticks and Stones"), the entire cast moved down to the edge of the stage, where their faces were uplit by a row of MR-16s placed in the deck.
Lincoln's most daring effect came at the very end, when Viveca is forced to admit that her endlessly cheerful personality is, in part, a pose, and that she harbors unexpressed feelings of anger and pride. At this moment, as she launched into her final number, "Listen," the designer drained the color out of the lighting, signifying the character's discovery of a new maturity.
With 28 numbers and its constantly shifting tone, Lincoln had plenty of cueing to do, and not much time in which to do it. "I went to rehearsals as much as I could," he says. "But I got this show late and was booked until just before. I was doing the bid while out of town. The plot got drafted via email, thanks to CAD." When he got onsite, he adds, he worked to set up basic cues before the tech, so he would have a template to work from. "The fun of the show was that I was there, teching every afternoon, during weeks of previews - there was always something to tweak. I could never watch the show without thinking something could be better." As always, with musicals in development, things were changed and numbers were rearranged. "Thank God for the Obsession," Lincoln adds, noting that the ETC console allowed him to link cues in different orders, saving him from having to rewrite his entire cue list.
Playwrights Horizons already had on hand about 165 ETC Source Fours, as part of a year-long rental package from Production Arts/PRG. For The Bubbly Black Girl, Lincoln added approximately 36 more Source Fours, plus three MR-16 MiniStrips and four Single Cell Cyc Strips, both from Lighting & Electronics. Also included were the three High End Studio Spots, seven Rosco Single gobo rotators, three Rosco double gobo rotators, and the 50 Wybron CXIs. The two followspots, placed in extreme left and right proscenium positions, were Source Fours, with City Theatrical followspot yokes and handles. As for control, along with the Obsession, ETC dimmers were also used. Non-custom patterns were drawn from the catalogs of Rosco, Lee, and GAM Products.
The additional equipment was supplied by Production Arts, as well.
Other personnel on the project included assistant lighting designers Jordan Cohen and Maura Sheridan, lighting supervisor Doug Filomena, lighting board operator Betsy Callaghan, and followspot operators Shelly Work and Daniel Meredith. Costumes were designed by David C. Woolard, with sound by Jon Weston.
Having earned a glowing notice from The New York Times, The Bubbly Black Girl closed in mid-July, after two extensions. However, rumors continue to circulate about a commercial booking in the near future. It's very possibly that the black girl may be bubbling again soon, in a larger venue.