By Lawrence Pfeil, Jr.
Before AOC, before Nancy Pelosi, there was Bella, Bella Abzug.
Known as “Battling Bella,” she was a graduate of Columbia Law School who became a civil rights attorney, social activist, leader of the women’s movement, member of the House of Representatives, and famously wore hats because,
“as a young lawyer it helped me to establish my professional identity. Before that, whenever I was at a meeting, someone would ask me to get coffee.”
Bella Abzug’s brilliant, often biting words and crusading work are the genesis of Harvey Fierstein’s enthralling, tour de force, new play Bella Bella which opened last night at Manhattan Theatre Club’s City Center Stage I. Awaiting the fateful results of the 1976 New York Democratic Senatorial primary, Bella holds up in the bathroom of her campaign suite reflecting on her life’s work; and for 90 minutes Mr. Fierstein holds an audience captive with her hilarious, heroic, and often heartbreaking story as few other performers could.
Billed as “written and performed by Harvey Fierstein from the words and works of Bella Abzug” it’s difficult to know where Abzug stops and Fierstein begins without being her scholar. But Bella Abzug knew how to make her point in no uncertain terms and Harvey Fierstein knows how to weave a story for maximum impact. Together, Bella Bella is a stunningly relevant and eye-opening call to action for a country that doesn’t seem to have progressed much beyond the America outside the window of her john in 1976.
Bella’s opening diatribe on equality, sexist elections, and how women, who are a 2% differential in the electorate yet 1% of the House, (still only 30%) vote against themselves, is immediately passionate and gripping. Ringing so familiar, one wonders whether she’s been transported to the present or if we’ve been taken back to her, and so it is throughout Bella Bella. Her fight for civil rights and equality fifty years ago mirrors the very challenges still facing America today.
Most widely known for her leadership of the women’s movement and the ERA, Bella Abzug was also a pioneer of Federal Gay Rights. Representing the Lower East Side of Manhattan and Greenwich Village, she embraced her LGBT constituency, even campaigning at the Continental Baths. In 1974 she introduced in Congress the first Gay civil rights bill, the “Equality Act” which would have banned discrimination based on sexual orientation. It failed to pass but succeeded in getting Gay rights into the national conversation.
In 1970 when Bella Abzug was elected to Congress, Harvey Fierstein was in Brooklyn already writing and performing in drag. Fifty years and four Tony Awards later he has brought them together on one stage in what can only be described as the perfect pairing of subject and performer. With her words, he has written a smart, insightful, and impassioned portrait of a woman, a Jewish woman, who recognized the discrimination in her path; but walked it anyway because she believed in equality and had the chutzpah to fight for it. With his command of the stage, he creates a Bella that is anything but a drag.
Fierstein gives a vibrant, passionate, and powerful performance with no want of makeup or an Abzug ensemble, apart from her iconic hat. In plain black rehearsal clothes, Fierstein is at the top of his prowess as the fierce firebrand wisecracking one minute, outraged the next, inspiring throughout.
Some works are a labor of love, done for the joy, not the reward. Still there are a few others, like Mr. Fierstein’s triumphant Bella Bella which are even more. To those lucky enough to hear what she “thinks about in the bathroom,” this is clearly his labor of passion, created and performed because it had to be done and done now, much like work of Bella Abzug herself.
Written and Performed by Harvey Fierstein, From the words and works of Bella Abzug
90 minutes No intermission
Now through December 1st
Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center Stage I
More Information and Tickets HERE
Lawrence Pfeil, Jr., is a freelance writer/playwright who has reviewed film and theatre, both on and off Broadway, for media outlets including The Randy Report, the New York Blade, and Edge Publications.