By Kia Standard
What happens when one larger‑than‑life personality embodies another larger‑than‑life in the case of the new off‑Broadway show “Bella Bella,” it’s a case of spontaneous combustion. Broadway veteran Harvey Fierstein has written and stars in a new show about social activist Bella Abzug. And let’s just say he has some pretty big shoes to fill. But if you are at all familiar with Mr. Fierstein, you know that he is more than up to the task.
The show opens with Aretha Franklin’s song “Think” playing in the background. The lights come up on an iridescent shower stall, with Mr. Fierstein standing at its entrance. He is simply clad in a black shirt and black slacks, carrying a wide‑brimmed red hat. This seems underdressed for Harvey Fierstein, no stranger to performing in drag. One of his most notable roles was Edna Turnblad in the Broadway musical “Hairspray,” for which he won a Tony Award. In “Bella Bella,” however, Mr. Fierstein offers a behind‑the‑scenes snapshot of the political powerhouse Bella Abzug and all that she represents. It’s not about the clothing; it’s about the attitude.
The year is 1976, and we find Abzug locked in a bathroom at the Summit Hotel on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where she anxiously awaits the results of her Senatorial race against Daniel Patrick Moynihan. “You’ve heard of backroom politics and bedroom politics. Well, this is bathroom politics.” She speaks directly to the audience, calling out the boys’ club of former presidents from Harry Truman to John F. Kennedy, to Lyndon B. Johnson, to Richard Nixon. “I called for Nixon’s impeachment, two years before Watergate,” she tells the audience. Bella has a recurring dream about a woman as president and an all‑female Supreme Court. But during her time as a congresswoman, the women were segregated from the men. They were not even allowed to sit on the floor of the House; instead they were sequestered to the balcony. Bella fought to change this. She reminisces about her earlier political aspirations, when she ran for class president of the third grade, and won. “I never entered a race I didn’t win ‑ eventually.” At the time, Harvard Law School did not admit women, so she attended Columbia University Law School instead. However, after she graduated from law school, she found it difficult to secure a job because employers mistook her for either a secretary or a law clerk. Bella considered herself “a mythical creature: a female Jewish lawyer.”
Abzug soon became a major conduit for change. The Bronx‑born leader went on to champion women’s rights, civil rights, and gay rights throughout her career. In the 1970s she picked up the baton from the early suffragettes and led the charge of the Women’s Movement alongside Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, and Betty Friedan. “Not to namedrop. Politicians love to namedrop,” but she was the friend of another famous Shirley, Shirley MacLaine. And Barbra Streisand volunteered to sing at one of Bella’s campaign events for Congress. Most importantly, Bella Abzug is known for her unapologetic approach to politics, and her undeniable drive. She was nicknamed “Battling Bella,” and her 1971 campaign slogan for her seat in Congress was “This woman’s place is in the house ‑ the House of Representatives.” The audience becomes privy to many of these stories during Abzug’s bathroom confessional.
Harvey Fierstein, the show’s writer and performer, not only encapsulates Bella’s strong will; he also plays to her comic side. The show’s text blends anecdotes and modern sensibilities with a peppering of Yiddish. Sometimes he calls upon the audience directly, which is something I can imagine Bella Abzug did during her heyday. After speaking a phrase in Yiddish, Mr. Fierstein cajoles one young audience member, “Ask someone to explain it to you later.” During the matinee I attended, a woman fell asleep in the front row, halfway through the performance. Mr. Fierstein jokingly told her friend, “Don’t wake her. She is having a beautiful dream.” Perhaps Bella would have had harsher words.
Mr. Fierstein’s Bella is not all bravado; there are moments in the show when the audience catches glimpses of her vulnerable side. Early in her career, Abzug lost a civil rights case in Mississippi involving a black man named Willie McGee, who was wrongfully convicted of raping a white woman. After losing the appeal, the man was executed, and sent to the electric chair. At the time of Willie McGee’s execution, Bella Abzug was eight months pregnant, and the shock of the incident caused her to suffer a miscarriage; she lost her first child. However, she later went on to have two daughters with her beloved husband Martin.
“Bella Bella” is more than a loving tribute to a fierce political leader; the show also sheds light on the imbalance of power within the boys’ club of Capitol Hill. Unfortunately, in today’s political climate, there seems to have been a dismal reversal of fortune, and American citizens must continue to fight for women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights, and other human dignities. Although many of Bella’s dreams have come to pass, and there are more women in office, regrettably, it seems as though history is destined to repeat itself. As much as things change, they remain the same. “Women will change the nature of power, rather than power changing the nature of women.” Dearest Bella, for the sake of this great country, I certainly hope so.
Written and Performed by Harvey Fierstein
Directed by Kimberly Senior
October 22 – December 1, 2019
Photo by Jeremy Daniel
Manhattan Theatre Club
New York City Center Stage I
131 West 55th Street
New York City
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KIA STANDARD is a writer and musical theater performer, who has appeared in regional and international productions of “West Side Story,” “The King and I”, “Little Shop of Horrors,” and “Bubbling Brown Sugar.” She received an MA in Creative Writing/Nonfiction from The Johns Hopkins University, and has published articles and profiles for various talent magazines. Ms. Standard is currently working as a musical playwright.