Broadway review

The best raised voices return from the past: Harvey Fierstein in ‘Bella Bella,’ and ‘For Colored Girls’

The Daily Beast

October 23, 2019

In ‘Bella Bella,’ Harvey Fierstein plays New York politician Bella Abzug; Ntozake Shange’s classic, ‘For Colored Girls,’ is revived; and ‘Is This A Room’ focuses on Reality Winner.

‘Bella Bella’

The story of Bella Abzug, as told in Bella Bella (to Dec. 1)—and the intelligent, restrained way Harvey Fierstein has written and performs this 90-minute monologue—is one that is immediately intimate. It is the story of sexism and power, of politics and prejudice, of the joy and pains of political battle and never giving in.

It’s the story of a big personality, fighting to achieve big things politically and personally. It is told to us direct by Bella Abzug, as played by Fierstein. He is excellent. It would be even better to see a woman perform it.

The show, staged by Manhattan Theatre Club and directed by Kimberly Senior, is set in September 1976 in the bathroom of a guest room of the Summit Hotel. Unseen, outside, is a room containing a husband (Martin) and advisers. Abzug is nervous, but also in a sharing mood with us as she takes us through the story of her life.

This is the night that Abzug, a New York politician who managed to be both a master arguer and agitator and coalition builder, was waiting to hear the results of a Democratic primary in New York City. Who would emerge victorious as the party’s candidate for a Senate race? It was a nomination, and race, ultimately won by Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

The play ends there, whereas Abzug’s political and campaigning life continued right up to her death, aged 77, in 1998.

By 1976, Abzug had already served three times in Congress. The fact she was a woman triumphing in such a male-dominated sphere—she was the first Jewish woman elected to Congress—made this critic want to see and hear a woman tell her story. She was one of the architects of the women’s movement, she introduced a historic gay rights bill, she was fiercely against the Vietnam War, and she told Richard Nixon what she thought of him to his face.

This is not to detract from Fierstein’s performance or play. His performance is respectful and engaging. A red dress hangs on the wall, and he carries one of Abzug’s signature hats. But Fierstein doesn’t wear drag. He doesn’t make himself look like Abzug in any way. He wears a sober black shirt and trousers, and he gilds the edge of his voice with a tinge of Abzug’s brogue.

Fierstein’s incarnation feels as passionately determined as its subject. We learn the sweep of Abzug’s life of committed activism, from defying synagogue convention as a teenager and saying the Kaddish in memory of her father, to forcing the Nixon administration to surrender documents about the Vietnam War that became known as the Pentagon Papers. She was the first member of Congress to call for Nixon’s impeachment. She fought and fought for what she believed was right.

What do we take from his 90-minute play? That Abzug was a passionate, conviction politician; that she was a feminist and also beyond any conventional definitions; that she fought—so hard; that she could be difficult, but no more difficult than big personality male politicians, and she rightly called out when she was being judged more negatively for being a woman. Fierstein captures her political savvy, her fierceness, political nous, and sense of fun, wit, and mischief.

The one discordant note remains, for this critic at least, the gender mismatch in front of us and the sense that—given how Abzug was a history-maker, convention-challenger, glass ceiling-shatterer, proudly as a woman—a woman might be better placed to play her in Bella Bella.


‘For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf’

Ntozake Shange’s play, the “choreopoem” For Colored Girls…, has been revived in a wonderful production at the Public Theater (to Dec. 1). In joy, grief, anger, and collective pleasure, seven women known by the color of their clothes (designed by Toni-Leslie James) come together to tell, sing, and dance their stories: Lady in Blue (Sasha Allen), Lady in Brown (Celia Chevalier), Lady in Orange (Danaya Esperanza), Lady in Red (Jayme Lawson, also the show’s dance captain), Lady in Yellow (Adrienne C. Moore), Lady in Green (Okwui Okpokwasili), and Lady in Purple (Alexandria Wailes).

The 20 poetic stories that make up For Colored Girls…, performed in its first incarnation in 1974, completed in 1976 (and winner of an Obie and many other awards), encompass the many parts of the black women’s lives, ranging from the pleasures of dance and hero crushes to rape, abortion, and terrible death.

As beautifully designed in a kind of disco-era round (by Myung Hee Cho), choreographed by Camille A. Brown, set to music (Deah Love Harriott following Martha Redbone’s original music), and directed by Leah C. Gardiner, this is an illuminating and emotional coming together.

While one (or a number of women) speaks, the others listen. The stage feels as fluid as the narratives. At the outset, while introducing where they are from, the Lady in Brown makes clear that what we are about to hear is about “colored girls who have considered suicide / but moved to the ends of their own rainbows.”

As written by Shange, who died last October, each woman has her own poem: The Lady in Red tells us about an affair; the Lady in Blue talks about an abortion and later notes how “dry and abstract” white people are.

The Lady in Brown talks about her all-consuming crush on Toussaint L’Ouverture, leader of the 18th century Haitian Revolution; the Lady in Red about the highs and lows of being a “deliberate coquette”; the Lady in Blue about “the six blocks of cruelty” she lives within in Harlem; the Lady in Purple about a man she and some of the women fell for, even though he was cheating on all of them; the Lady in Orange about heartbreak; the Lady in Yellow about dance, and the “metaphysical” challenge of “bein alive & bein a woman & bein colored”; and—this is a really wonderful segment—the Lady in Green about dealing with a man who has just walked off with all her stuff, and she’ll be damned if he’s going to get away with this violation, which, her steely delivery emphasizes, goes beyond stolen objects.

Interspersed with these solo confessionals, the women come together to share and tell, sing and dance, other stories. A truly horrific story is followed by a laying on of hands, and a resounding statement, spoken and visual, of collective care and strength.

The appreciation, particularly from black audience members, was audible throughout the show. The characters spoke their stories and truths accompanied by much snapping of fingers. For Colored Girls… transcends the time of its creation, and remains universal. In a note in the program, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, the Public Theater’s master writer chair, who knew Shange, writes that she was “a lighthouse writer… a beacon.”

“What’s so great about this play? Aside from its daring? And its ability to catch the spirit of a people more often passed over than you’d really want to think about?” writes Parks in her stirring testimonial. “This play speaks to the injustice of daily life. It speaks to the beauty. It showed me what theater could do. And still shows me what theater can do. Remembering some of us, we remember all of us, and ultimately we remember ourselves.”

And what to take from For Colored Girls… in 2019? As Parks writes, “Dance, shout, agitate, and ultimately celebrate together.”


‘Is This A Room’

Tina Satter’s 70-minute play Is This A Room (Vineyard Theatre, to Nov. 10) isn’t really a play—but it is briskly and intelligently performed. It is an enactment of the transcript of what happened when the FBI first came to the Augusta, Georgia, home of a young Air Force veteran called Reality Winner on June 3, 2017.

Winner went on to be formally accused of leaking evidence about Russian interference in the 2016 election to The Intercept.

Winner, now 27, was sentenced to five years in jail last August. This is a distillation of the first moments of the investigation. Outside the theater you will find leaflets about Winner, which is vital rather than useful because—taken cold—the play doesn’t offer up any context or information. We are watching an FBI bust, and taken verbatim it is rather confusing, and un-involving about what is going on.

The actors are all excellent. Emily Davis plays Winner, who is constantly being surrounded and boxed in by the three men: Agent Garrick (Pete Simpson), Agent Taylor (TL Thompson), and Unknown Male (Becca Blackwell).

The stage, designed by Parker Lutz and lit by Thomas Dunn, is a gray rectangle with raised platforms on each side. Sometimes the actors disappear off to the side, and we imagine it to be the side or other rooms of Winner’s house; a toy dog represents her dog.

But did the transcript convey the threatening physicality of the FBI investigators? If not, where did this come from, and is it true? We only learn about the actual case haltingly in this initial interrogation, and the stage flashes dark when something redacted is mentioned. It is effective and also puzzling.

There is uncomfortable accuser-accused levity over pets, and how to deal with a cat who won’t come out from under the bed. The piece is fascinating, and the actors expertly negotiate its odd contours and gaps, but we come away knowing too little about Reality Winner, and whatever she did or didn’t do.