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Black Women Playwrights: Interviews

Kirsten Childs

Kirsten Childs is a veteran performer who has gained recognition as a playwright and lyricist in musical theater. She won an Obie for The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin (2000). Her first full-length musical was Northstar (with composer Laurie Uguccioni). Childs is the co-writer of Sundiata, Lion King of Mali, and she adapted the 19th century poem, The Highwayman, for the McCarterTheater at Princeton University. As a performer, Childs co-starred with Chita Rivera in the musical Chicago, co-starred with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in the film See No Evil, Hear No Evil, and performed on Broadway in Dancin', Jerry's Girls, and Sweet Charity.  She has also written songs for jazz singer Dianne Reeves. Her honors include the Edward Kleban Award and the Gilman & Gonzalez-Falla Musical Theatre Award. A native of Los Angeles, Childs graduated from New York University's Musical Theater Writing Program.

KIRSTEN CHILDS: Back when I was a kid I was not involved with theater. I am from Los Angeles, California. I know there is probably a lot more theater now, but then it was really a film town, and I was a native there. I was not in either the theater or movie scene; I was just a kid growing up in LA. I loved movie musicals. I just adored them. I watched Carousel. The overture would come on, I would just start crying. My favorite musical at the time was Calamity Jane with Doris Day and Howard Keel. Doris Day was Calamity Jane. She was dressed like a guy, and she was tough and rough, and she did anything she wanted. I thought, "This is really great." I loved a lot of the movie musicals. I would dance around in my living room. I became a musical-theater performer, but I really loved the process, when I was a performer, of watching someone put a show together, even more than the performance of it. So I became a writer instead.

Q: What was your first professional show?

KIRSTEN CHILDS: The first show that I did that really excited me was the first show I ever did in my entire life-which was also the first show that I auditioned for. Ignorance is bliss, and I went for an audition of the show Chicago. I had no idea who Bob Fosse was. I had no idea about anything about musical theater, but that I loved it. I was too ignorant to be afraid and went in there and dazzled everybody and got my first show.

It was a very unorthodox entrance to musical theater. All the people around me had been in musicals since they were children, and I was from L.A. and not really knowledgeable about musicals. I was in the cast of the touring company of Chicago the first time it was done and learned so much on the job from Bob Fosse, who, of course, was the choreographer and the director and partial writer of the show. He was very inspirational. He would say "just look, listen and work," and I took it to heart.

Q: When you decide to write?

KIRSTEN CHILDS: The point where I decided that I really wanted to write the shows was when I decided to write a show about the Tuskegee Airmen. I wanted to write something that was important to the African-American community and would afford a lot of performers work. My dream was I would give many people so much work they would love me and be very happy. Of course, that did not work out. But it did work out with another show that was done at Playwrights Horizon. A lot of people were working, and I was very happy about that.

The story about the Tuskegee Airmen was a tribute to my father, who was in the 477th fighting unit. They were pilots, but they were not able to go to war because at the time there was segregation and there was an effort to keep a lot of black flyers out of the war ... It was sort of an adaptation of Ulysses. I thought it was wonderful, but it was actually really awful, but I submitted it to NYU's musical theater writing program. There was something in it that said that I could possibly write musicals, and they took me.

Q: And which show made everyone happy?

BubblyBlack Girls Sheds Her Chameleon Skin

KIRSTEN CHILDS: I wrote a show called The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin. It's a one-act musical done at Playwrights Horizon, and I started out doing the show as a performance piece. Even before I did the show as a performance piece, I wrote songs that were statements on my personal feelings about life and those grew into a performance piece, which ultimately grew into a musical, The Bubbly Black Girl.

Q: What is it about?

KIRSTEN CHILDS: The show is about a girl who puts on a bubbly facade to deal with her life. It takes place from the '60s through the '90s. And so she goes on a journey of self-discovery, and she navigates the racism, the sexism, the family issues in her life, and finally she is forced to deal with the devastating affect that self-denial has had on her life and that is basically the premise of the story-with a lot of funk, and rock, and dance, and good times-like all the other musicals I have seen.

Q: How would you describe it?

KIRSTEN CHILDS: There is no central theme song. It's really an eclecticly organized musical because it comments on issues that I was afraid to talk about for all of my life, and finally I said, "I just got to say something about them." So there are these moments, these song moments, that deal with, say, homophobia, racism, sexism, internalized racism. It sounds very heavy, but it was actually fun with a lot of finger-popping and good times. But there were certain issues in my life I wanted to explore. I would not say there was one central song, but they are all fun songs.

The pictures that you have from the show of people in afros, that particular scene is close to my heart, because that is during a typical party, during the girl's teen years. Her name is Viva Castan, and she goes to a party where the guys are saying, "Give it up." The name of the song is "Give It Up." Her girlfriends are trying to school her in how to be appropriately disparaging of the boys so they will be interested in her. They are telling her how to suck her teeth and wag her head as if she does not have any interest in the guys, and she can not get it. She doesn't fit in with anyone in her culture, in her life, and it makes for kind of a funny moment.

LaChanz was the star of the show. How can I describe how incredible she was in the show? She came in, and she looked at the script, and she became the Bubbly Black Girl. She understood the levels of all that it meant to be the Bubbly Black Girl: the approval, the anger, the rage underneath this facade, the need, the vulnerability. She just had every range of emotions, the range of colors that you needed to portray this character. I was just blown away by her and continue to be blown away by her.

Q: How was the show received?

KIRSTEN CHILDS: You know, it was mixed, the response to The Bubbly Black Girl. The New York Times critic thought highly of it, which I was very happy to read. There were people who were very angry with it. Surprisingly, the people who were angry with it were white men. I really don't understand that. They felt that it wasn't real, it wasn't true, and that there were things that were offensive about it. And yet, a lot of people said this was my story, including white men. I was very shocked at how some people perceived the show. It was interesting-who did like it, and who didn't like it. That's not going to stop me from writing. It was shocking to me, and it could have been disheartening, but I am a stubborn person. I know what I want to have happen. I want to keep writing, writing stories that I am interested in and other people are interested in, that will afford some different people some different roles. And I'm going to keep on writing.

Q: What's in the works now?

KIRSTEN CHILDS: I'm working on a full-length piece for the Vineyard Theater. I'm working on a piece called Miracle Brothers. It takes place in Brazil in the 1600s, and it's a story of half-brothers, one black and one white. Through a misunderstanding they are torn apart, and on the way to reuniting, many fantastic adventures befall them. So there are comments on race and class, but there is also music and dance and magic and capoeira, and I'm very excited about this piece.

Q: Capoeira?

KIRSTEN CHILDS: Capoeira is a Brazilian martial art that started out as a defense that fugitives used. That was their only method of defense against people who were coming to retrieve them or hurt them. It's a kicking type of defense. It's done with percussion, and it is incredible to watch Capoeiristas perform. So I'm excited about this piece; excited about the music I'm going to have to work with-not just Brazilian music, but Portuguese music from Portugal-and then my own special brand of music that filters through me.

One brother is black, and the other brother is white. They are fairly young. Their mutual parent is their father, who is the owner of the plantation, and they have different mothers. A catastrophe happens to separate the two because they are actually loving brothers. They are young enough not to be completely separate and a terrible thing happens to pull them apart. And will they reunite? You will just have to see.

Race is such an interesting notion. People really tiptoe around it in the United States, and they tiptoe around it in Brazil, I suppose. In my family, in my ancestry, there are people of many races, and I was told that I must really perceive of myself as black and to deny something of the past. I find it something to really be explored. So I am exploring it through this sort of magical story.

Q: How do you feel about the black women writers who are making themselves heard in theater now?

KIRSTEN CHILDS: I think we need to hear the voices of as many playwrights as possible. I am just a voice that is not going to shut up, so that is why you need to hear me. I think there are amazing, amazing African-American women and men playwrights, and a whole diversity of voices that have not been heard usually. I think we need to hear them because I think we need to hear all the different stories. I love to hear stories from different perspectives. I think the audiences want to hear the voices clearly. And that is why we need to listen to them.

I was not always a composer. My brother actually is a very well known jazz composer. He is also a classical composer. His name is Billy Childs. He was the composer in the family, so I never went to school for writing music. I sort of made myself write music. I think that is why you should hear African-American women's voices, because we've always... at least I have always felt that I should keep my mouth shut. And now I think it is time to talk. It is time to speak and sing, definitely sing.