Pygmalion Theatre Company’s ‘Bella Bella’ Strikes a Deep Chord Today


Tamara Johnson-Howell as Bella. (Photo by Beth Bruner)

By Tervela Georgieva, Arts Writer


On Feb. 11, Pygmalion Theatre Company’s “Bella Bella” premiered at Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. “Bella Bella” by Harvey Fierstein, and directed by Fran Pruyn, was a one-woman play about the real-life Bella Abzug – feminist icon of the 20th century, social rights activist, congresswomen, attorney and unstoppable force. The play was set on election night of Bella’s run for U.S. Senate in 1976. She was in the hotel bathroom alone while others, supporters and family, waited for her outside. 

It’s 2022

It was my pleasure to speak 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 at the front and center.

“Bella Bella” took us back to 1976, but its resonances with the current day are undeniable. Pruyn said that what surprised people about the show was, “Just how many of these political fights, structures, causes, began so long ago, and they’re not even close to being resolved. Those causes have not been actualized in any way.” Pruyn continued, “[Bella’s] problem is mostly with the exclusivity of men in leadership. There was so bloody few women in any sort of representational government, representing what is more than fifty percent of the population.”

Pacing in the bathroom, waiting for the election results, Bella contended with the past and present-day reality of how difficult it is to rally a group of people for a cause. Nothing happens by the force of a single individual, not even one as qualified and fierce as Bella, and she knew it herself. It is only when people come together as a group that they make things happen. 

The Political Power of Theater 

I asked Pruyn how she thinks about the role of theater in addressing political issues – such as the fight for women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights and the fight against racism. “The simple answer is by humanizing them, by giving them a face, making the political personal,” Pruyn said. “What you have to do is really present a human face that the audience can understand and realize.” The show gave us the face of Bella, a serious woman who got things done and was both tough and vulnerable. In order to get all those things done, Pruyn added, “She had to really, really hide her hurt.” 

“These are the lives people are living and they’re not fair, life isn’t fair.” Theater has the power to capture this fact, to humanize real-world issues and make them a concrete reality. It can be an initiator for conversations about civil rights — a “place to start, because you can talk about the show instead of talking about yourself.” 

Bella captured us and wouldn’t let go. With a fiery tongue and no apologies, she told us how it is. Eyeing us in our seats, propelling 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, her voice is a force unstoppable and hopeful to incite change.  


“Bella Bella” runs through Feb. 26. Tickets are available through the Salt Lake Arts website.


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