On February 11, “Bella Bella” by the Pygmalion Theater Company premiered at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. “Bella Bella” by Harvey Fierstein, and directed by Fran Pruyn, was a solo play about the real Bella Abzug – 20th century feminist icon, social rights activist, MP, lawyer and unstoppable force. The play was set on election night for Bella’s 1976 U.S. Senate bid. She was alone in the hotel bathroom while others, supporters and family, waited outside for her.
We are in 2022
I had the pleasure of speaking with the play’s director Pruyn to learn more about Abzug (Tamara Johnson-Howell) and the process of creating a show that puts civil rights front and center.
“Bella Bella” took us back to 1976, but its resonances with the present day are undeniable. Pruyn said what surprised people about the show was, “How many of these political fights, structures, causes, started so long ago, and they’re not even close to being resolved. These causes have in no way been updated. Pruyn continued: “[Bella’s] The problem is mainly related to the exclusivity of men in leadership. There were so few women in any type of representative government, representing over fifty percent of the population.
Pacing in the bathroom, waiting for the election results, Bella faced the past and present reality of how hard it is to rally a group of people for a cause. Nothing happens by the force of a single individual, not even one as skilled and fierce as Bella, and she knew that herself. It’s only when people come together as a group that they make things happen.
The political power of theater
I asked Pruyn what she thought of the role of theater in solving political issues – such as the fight for women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights and the fight against racism. “The simple answer is to humanize them, to give them a face, to make politics personal,” Pruyn said. “What you need to do is really present a human face that the audience can relate to and realize.” The show gave us the face of Bella, a serious woman who got things done and who was both tough and vulnerable. In order to do all those things, Pruyn added, “She had to really, really hide her hurt.”
“These are the lives that people live and they are not fair, life is not fair.” Theater has the power to capture this fact, to humanize real world issues and make them concrete reality. It can be a conversation starter about civil rights — a “starting point, because you can talk about the show instead of talking about yourself.”
Bella grabbed us and wouldn’t let go. With a tongue of fire and without apologies, she told us how it was. Looking at us in our places, pushing us to think about women, politics, and the consequences of letting well-meaning liberal men decide what’s best for us. In 1976 and today, his voice is an unstoppable and hopeful force in inciting change.
“Bella Bella” runs until February 26. Tickets are available on the Salt Lake Arts website.