The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin

The cast of “The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin” at Karamu House.


The Cleveland Jewish News does not make endorsements of political candidates and/or political or other ballot issues on any level. Letters, commentaries, opinions, advertisements and online posts appearing in the Cleveland Jewish News, on or our social media pages reflect the views and thoughts of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Cleveland Jewish Publication Company, its board, officers or staff or any other organization unless explicitly stated.

Boasting 100 years of developing and nurturing African American artists, Karamu House is more than a theater; it is a home. This is evident from the faces of the staff and the heart of the cast that they take their name seriously.

“Karamu” means “a place of joyful gathering” in Swahili, and that joyful vibe creates a warmth that radiates and spills out into the audience as well. And Karamu House, which hosts a five-show season, educational opportunities for all ages and thought-provoking community programming, earns its highly-regarded reputation and its national recognition as being the oldest African American performing arts institution in the nation.

The current production, “The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin,” is a tongue-in-cheek, clever and relevant musical about Viveca, a young Black girl in the 1960s who wants to become a professional dancer. But as we peel off that superficial layer, we ache for Viveca as she struggles to navigate relationships ... and life, and sort out her identity alongside “companions” like racism, sexism, fear, pressure to conform and pressure to discover her truth.

When we first meet the bubbly Viveca, she is a vivacious child walking home from school with her friend Gregory, who tells her, amidst some flirtation and banter, that four little Black girls her age were murdered in a church.

At home in her room, she plays with her favorite White Chitty Chatty doll, and throws the Black doll that her mother got her on the floor. She confides in Chitty Chatty that she wants to be white, and as time goes on, and Viveca gets older, her friends accuse her of hanging out with white kids, calling her a “pathetic Oreo.” Her parents are also on different pages, as her dad tries to protect her from any unpleasant, ugly truths, enabling her conformity, while her mom wants her to face and embrace her reality.

The juxtaposition of the catchy music, colorful costumes, and clever choreography with the vision of black children as victims of a bombing is jarring, and a sobering truth as to the burgeoning racial intolerance plaguing our society, not only in the 1960s, but today. The choice to shine a light on this reality with such a fresh and upbeat approach is the brainchild of playwright Kirsten Childs, who when asked what inspired her to write this story, said “... now, as it was back then (as it has always been for Black people in the Diaspora), allowing anger to consume you is self-defeating and unproductive. Which is why I chose to write a story of hope and humor about the ridiculousness of racism and intolerance.”

The cast, at its best, is full of energy, playing multiple roles, having a blast with each one, and landing important laughs. Unfortunately, where the production wobbles is in its uneven vocal performances and muddy sound. In many cases, the lyrics in the group numbers are virtually indecipherable if you are sitting in the back half of the house, and sometimes the production’s shortcomings come close to detracting from the powerful message.

Standout performances include Avery LaMar Pope as Viveca’s longtime friend Gregory; a main part of her journey from the start. Pope has spot on vocals and is a versatile actor, developing his character from a mischievous boy to a young man who is both vulnerable and strong. Pope’s moving performance in the scene when Gregory is stopped by the police, leads to a palpable fear that ripples through the entire audience.

Mell-Vonti Bowens’s sexy take on the song, “Come With Me,” puts his smooth-as-silk vocal stylings front and center.

Kennedi Hobbs sinks her teeth into the leading role of Viveca, and she approaches her character with a lot of passion and honesty. Her lofty musical numbers are over her head, but she gives every song everything she’s got.

The rest of the hard-working ensemble ebbs and flows musically, but hits all the high notes in terms of enthusiasm, especially when it comes to executing Kenya Woods’s funky choreography.

Nina Domingue manages to create a safe space for humor and harsh reality to collide and mesh in order to, as Domingue writes in her director’s note, “Open the door for you to discover your truths and relish the miracle of everyday survival.” Kirsten Child’s “The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin” feels like a grown up sandbox and a perfect place for this kind of important self discovery.

Sheri Gross is the CJN theatre critic. She is a performer, director and freelance writer from Solon. She was the director of the Mandel JCC Playmakers Youth Theatre and Pilloff Performing Arts Camp for over 20 years and is the director of creative programs at Gross Schechter Day School in Pepper Pike.

How do you feel about this article?

Choose from the options below.