Nikki M. James stars in Kirsten Childs's The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin, directed by Robert O'Hara, for Encores! Off-Center at New York City Center.
Nikki M. James stars in Kirsten Childs's The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin, directed by Robert O'Hara, for Encores! Off-Center at New York City Center.
(© Joan Marcus)

Despite the reptilian imagery of the title, The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin is as warm-blooded as they come. Full of heart and humor, this musical coming-of-age story proves to be a timely selection for the 2017 Encores! Off-Center series, which is taking place at New York City Center.

When it premiered at Playwrights Horizons in 2000, Bubbly Black Girl introduced creator Kirsten Childs as a new and exciting voice in musical theater, employing a gleeful pop sensibility to serious issues of identity and race relations (Childs penned book, music, and lyrics). Seventeen years later, it is even clearer just how fresh that perspective was: Many of the songs and scenes in Bubbly Black Girl feel like they were written in direct response to today.

Lauren E.J. Hamilton, Kenita R. Miller, Penelope Armstead-Williams, Nikki M. James, and Tanya Birl perform in The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds her Chameleon Skin.
Lauren E.J. Hamilton, Kenita R. Miller, Penelope Armstead-Williams, Nikki M. James, and Tanya Birl perform in The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds her Chameleon Skin.
(© Joan Marcus)

Our protagonist is Viveca Stanton (Nikki M. James), a middle-class black girl growing up in Los Angeles. Sporting a habitually cheery (and nonthreatening) disposition, she informs us that we can call her Bubbly (Clint Ramos appropriately costumes her in a bubblegum pink dress). Bubbly navigates the usual minefield of adolescence and young adulthood while harboring the desire of becoming a star dancer. Naturally, she ends up in New York, "a place where f*cked up folks can make their dreams come true."

But what's so f-ed about Bubbly, an ostensibly happy young woman? Well, in addition to dreaming about becoming the next Gwen Verdon, Bubbly also dreams about becoming white. She teaches her black baby doll about Harriet Tubman (played by the consistently funny Kenita R. Miller) when her parents (Kingsley Leggs and Shelley Thomas) are watching; but when they leave her room, she discards the black doll for her real best friend: Chitty Chatty, a blond-haired, blue-eyed white doll. She confides in Chitty Chatty her hope that a handsome (white) prince will come and rescue her from the curse (of blackness) that some nefarious witch surely placed on her.

The strength of Childs's book derives from the childlike propensity for openly discussing those things that most adults have the good sense to avoid. For instance, when neighbor boy Gregory (Korey Jackson) informs Viveca about the bombing of a black church in Alabama, it is mostly to taunt her about how much she looks like one of the victims. Theatergoers are likely to squirm in their seats at this trivialization of terrorism, perhaps uncomfortably aware that this is how playground banter really sounds — and this is how children develop their most intractable insecurities.

Director Robert O'Hara smartly does little to dissipate that discomfort, resulting in a concert presentation that is as dramatically compelling as it is tuneful. Music director Annastasia Victory takes care of the latter part, leading a five-piece band to a hearty sound that runs the gamut from girl group pop to urbane jazz. Byron Easley is similarly versatile in his choreography, giving us an infectious dance craze with "The Skate" and classic Broadway sophistication in "Pretty."

Viveca (Nikki M. James) is surrounded by her back-up boys (Jo'Nathan Michael, Julius Thomas III, Yurel Echezarreta, and Alex Wong) during "Pretty" in The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds her Chameleon Skin.
Viveca (Nikki M. James) is surrounded by her back-up boys (Jo'Nathan Michael, Julius Thomas III, Yurel Echezarreta, and Alex Wong) during "Pretty" in The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds her Chameleon Skin.
(© Joan Marcus)

The staging also benefits from a remarkable performance by James, who grounds Viveca's quirkiness in real stakes and emotional depth. She never misses a laugh line, nor does she pass up an opportunity to remind us that our effervescent heroine is an individual, not easily stereotyped or categorized.

The friction between individuality and group identity is the driving force behind Bubbly Black Girl: Viveca fears the violence of white America (especially when armed policemen approach her and Gregory), but she never really finds comfort around the black folks who call her "Oreo" (they insist that like the cookie, she's all white inside). Her mom teaches her to straighten her hair, while Director Bob (a skeevy Josh Davis) tells her not to "go white on me" when performing an audition monologue. Childs conveys all of this with irrepressible mirth and an ever-present musicality, proving that musical comedy can be as enlightening as it is hilarious.