The brash and unapologetic Bella Abzug has a personality primed for cultural reproduction. As yet, however, the congresswoman from New York has not secured the kind of legacy enjoyed by her fellow National Women’s Political Caucus co-founders Fannie Lou Hamer, Betty Friedan, Shirley Chisholm, and Gloria Steinem. The actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein attempts to rectify this in part with Bella Bella, an affectionate one-man show that has Abzug (Fierstein) camped out in a hotel bathroom while awaiting the results of the 1976 New York senate primaries.
Bella Bella is a loving portrait, and Fierstein makes the spot-on decision to drain his performance of any pantomimic camp. He dresses in a simple black button-up and pants, and his head is bare, with the exception of his silhouetted entrance and his end-of-play exit, where he dons one of those famous hats. The de-emphasis on physical appearance serves to underscore one of Abzug’s biggest gripes: the obsession over her clothing. Dripping with contempt, she recalls meeting Pat Nixon immediately after haranguing Dick. Pat says, “Oh, Bella. I’ve always wanted to meet you. I love your little bonnets.”
I have to admit, too, that I enjoyed the play’s nostalgia for a great era of progressive Jewish politics. Abzug opposed the Vietnam war, introduced the first federal queer civil rights legislation—it only just passed in the House in May of this year—and faced death threats while representing Willie McGee, a Black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, before the Supreme Court. Hearing about such a range of political agitation, agitation that bore fruit across generations, has a restorative, inspiring effect in the context of our own current politics.
And hearing is the operative word here. Fierstein is a natural-born raconteur, and Bella Bella is packed with behind-the-scenes anecdotes, practiced one-liners, self-deprecating humor, and a ceaseless cascade of digressions. The script even comes equipped with a list of Yiddish words and phrases, such as Shegetz, or a Gentile man. As in, “The Ten Commandments. You see that movie? Yul Brenner. Shegetz, I know, but gorgeous!”
I can think of worse ways to spend ninety minutes than listening to that androgynous, sandy growl.