On a recent Friday night at Joe’s Pub (restaurant and performing arts venue at the Public Theater), while waiting for Josephine and I to begin, I have slight trepidation about the performance I am expecting to see. I am wondering if the artist playing Josephine Baker is either going to appear on stage with a skirt made of bananas or whether any of the costumes worn will be risqué.(The banana skirt was one of Baker’s most controversial costumes). I hold my breath and say, “I hope not.” I, along with many others wait for the show to start. We see what appears to be a stage worker, whisper to the pianist who is playing a nice cabaret style composition. The pianist then plays the composition again and again and again. Apparently the pianist is told that the performer is going to be late. My table mates and I whisper, “where is she?” Then, the performer, Cush Jumbo, rushes onto the stage with coat on and bags in hand, offering up apologies for her dilatoriness. She says she just came from an audition that was for a great show about which she cannot tell us. She takes her coat off says a few words of explanation about artists’ lives and then flawlessly becomes Josephine Baker. At that moment, I ask myself, if the previous routine is part of the show. Yes it is! Her acting is sheer perfection. Thus, begins the show, Josephine and I! For the record, Jumbo never puts on the banana skirt! It is only discretely mentioned during the performance. There is nothing off kilter about this performance. For those who are not familiar with Josephine Baker, the show offers up a cultural history that is worth watching. Within five minutes of the show, I realize that I am about to see a splendiferous performance with both great originality and flavor.
During the month of March until April 5th, Cush Jumbo (also the playwright) performs this show at The Public Theater in NYC. She is supported by an award winning creative team. The show is directed by Phyllida Lloyd and Anthony Ward is the scenic and costume designer; Joseph Atkins is the music director. This solo show was first performed at The Bush Theater during the 2013 season. Recently, Jumbo appeared on Broadway, alongside Hugh Jackman, in The River.
When Jumbo was younger she came across Baker and marveled at her success and how Baker resembled her in color. Jumbo, a fair woman of color, decided to research the life of Baker. She became intrigued with her life and how she navigated the waters of racial hostility in America.
Jumbo’s one woman show is a success. She captivates and at times rivets the audience during the scenes that explore the complexity of some of the unpopular decisions that Baker made as well as how the NAACP supported her and how and she handled the racism of the time during her career in the United States. Jumbo shows the transition that Baker made when she adopted France as her new homeland, a practice common to black artists of that era. She makes some parallels between her life and that of Baker’s.
To add historical accuracy, Jumbo uses mixed media to convey the sentiment of the time regarding Baker’s career while Jumbo depicts her own professional career. Through these real life recordings, we are catapulted to the time period with great historical accuracy and specificity. Additionally, through video projected newspaper clippings, and exquisite acting, we experience verisimilitude, a technique that makes the performance engaging. We experience Baker as a blacklisted artist. The mixed media allows the audience to feel the hostility that Baker faced as an artist in America.
Through music, dance, and storytelling Jumbo superbly offers up a great rendition of Baker’s life while gently weaving in details of the challenges that she and Baker both faced as artists. She explores how artists engage in actions that others do not understand. They take roles that are not considered kosher so that they can further their careers. Moreover, she infuses these ideas not to change your mind about Baker’s actions, but to give insight into the decision making that actors face especially when confronting bias. When Jumbo transitions from Baker’s life to that of her own, at first, it seems like an unwanted interruption, but the acting is perfect and the audience is allowed to see the connection between both artists’ lives. One of the transitions appeared to be longer than I would have liked, but she superbly acted the scene; thus, it is easy to forgive the intrusion of the lengthiness of her own story. She tells these stories with both great dance and music to the extent that the transitions overall are well done and do not detract from Baker’s story. Jumbo apparently studied Baker’s dance choreography and is able to replicate some of the dance movements.
Anthony Ward, the costume designer, is a Tony Award winning theatrical set designer. The costume design, filled with both glitz and glamour, was fabulous. The costume changes were seamless. Often through the show, Jumbo puts on and takes off various costumes to reflect the different performances in which Baker engaged. She often took off parts of a dress or skirt while putting on other parts to make the outfit slightly different.
Jumbo makes maximum use of her audience to maintain engagement. Throughout the entire performance, Jumbo makes us feel part of the show. During one of the scenes she talks to an audience member, but it is actually part of the script. Additionally, to maximize audience engagement, tables are used to maximum effect. We were asked to light candles during one of the scenes. Moreover, in the theatrical space, there are dolls representing the many children of various races, religions, and ethnicities that Baker adopted. These dolls are placed strategically throughout the room. Jumbo then continues her performance as she walks about the room performing her routine as she infuses the issue of race, via the dolls, as neither an essential nor preponderant quality necessary for both love and acceptance.
Near the end of the performance, Jumbo effortlessly reenacts Baker’s last performance in Paris at the Bobino. It was a sold out crowd. Baker, in Paris, had not performed for a period of time due to illness. It was a celebration of her fifty year career as an entertainer. Baker, via Jumbo, gets back on stage and gives what became her final performance to great reviews. Jumbo ends the show showing how Baker spent her final lucid moments before suffering a cerebral hemorrhage which ultimately resulted in her premature death. She was reading the reviews of her show in the newspapers – a regular custom which she practiced.
Jumbo maintains historical accuracy that is not overly didactic, but entertaining. I left feeling excited and thoroughly entertained. using ideas from the film, Seymour: An Introduction, it is both the dissonance and the harmony of life that allow us to play life beautifully. Jumbo’s spirit embodied it. I say to her and others like her, play on! Through music, dance, and storytelling we get a beautiful glimpse into the artistry of Josephine Baker. The fortieth anniversary of Baker’s death is April 12th. Why not celebrate it by attending the show or by reading about Baker’s life? The tickets are reasonably priced and $20 rush tickets are available the day of the performance. It’s at Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater. Have a good dinner or lunch with entertainment! Performances continue until April 5th. If you cannot see it then, it will appear at Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago after its run at The Public Theater. Comments welcome!