Harvey Fierstein is breaking out the Yiddish.
In his new solo show Bella Bella, a Manhattan Theatre Club production at New York City Center, Fierstein plays political firebrand and pioneering feminist Bella Abzug. Fierstein is also here, it seems, to give Yiddish Fiddler a run for its money. His script for Bella Bella includes a two-page glossary translating Yiddish words and phrases. Within just the first few minutes of the play, Bella has dropped gotkes (underwear), chalaria (crazy person) and of course, nosh.
Speaking of snacks – Fierstein is also making a delicious snack of this role. As the play begins, Bella is hiding away in a hotel bathroom. It is 1976, and we’re at the Summit Hotel on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Bella is awaiting the results of a Democratic primary for the New York state senator. The results are looking close – hence the hiding away in a bathroom. Though of course, that also provides an excuse for Bella to chat with us about her life, her struggles, and her beliefs.
Fierstein’s warm stage presence and charisma only deepens as his career progresses. I felt a real sense of comfort as the lights came up and Fierstein stepped out. Something about Harvey greeting us into a New York theater just makes one feel right at home. Best of all, Fierstein always seems to be having the time of his life. The same, it seems, could have been said of Bella – who like Fierstein, was often greeted by her first name.
Fierstein’s decision to take on this role is a fascinating one. He performs it dressed in plain black jeans and a black shirt. Very simple, no accoutrements – except of course a big red hat, Abzug’s signature fashion item. Fierstein has obviously created this show out of a deep love and respect for Abzug’s legacy. Yet what’s most intriguing about Bella Bella is the distance his casting creates. He is only sort of playing Bella. Sure he adopts a voice, along with some mannerisms (and all that Yiddish). But at the same time, he’s still very much Harvey.
It’s a refreshingly unique approach to a solo show. Here the benefit is huge, as it saves Bella Bella from hagiography. Of course the show is admiring of Abzug, as it should be. Since it is not literally Abzug on stage, though, enthusiastic liberal audiences are spared the tiresome need to applaud every accomplishment. (Though my audience did still seize on one chance). To be fair, this is still a fairly comforting evening for Manhattan Theatre Club audiences. Bella wonders on how horrors of recent history, including the Vietnam War, might have gone differently with women at the table. She spits “toi, toi, toi” at every mention of Nixon. And so on.
All that said, Fierstein’s script keeps insistently returning to another theme: women voters failing to support women candidates. I felt many in my audience bristle as Bella harangued us on a still under-discussed statistical fact: a majority of American women vote against their own political self-interest. Okay, maybe not the women in this audience. (Mostly?) Still, in a moment when white women helped place President Donald Trump in power, this element of Fierstein’s script strikes a nerve.
Equally powerful is Fierstein’s decision to end the play on the story of Willie McGee, a black Mississippi man who was convicted of the rape of a white woman in 1946 and executed. Early in her legal career, Abzug represented McGee on appeal. Fierstein smooths over the messy facts of this case, some of which remain contested to this day. However, there is no question that McGee received an unfair trial; that his guilt was assumed; and that his gruesome execution was treated as a spectacle for public enjoyment. Having placed the audience in the relative comfort of recent history – a history we think we know and understand – Fierstein hits us with a horror that seems of a different age. A broadly white audience is reminded – this wasn’t that long ago.
It’s true that at times, Bella Bella is a history lesson. I can’t say I minded that the Wikipedia-ish elements, but your mileage may vary. Abzug’s is a one-of-a-kind story, given a unique theatrical life. She was a hell of a mekhaya.