Josephine Baker (Freda Josephine McDonald 1906-1975), had a poor, uneducated childhood in St. Louis, Missouri. She was working by 12, married the first time at 14, and divorced the next year. The young street performer went on to local vaudeville, arriving in New York during Harlem’s Renaissance. Probably by dint of personality, Josephine managed to secure last place at the end of several all black chorus lines. She was greatly self-taught, loose-limbed rather than graceful, and thrilled to evoke laughter.
In the cast of 1925’s La Revue Nègre, Josephine sailed for Paris and toured France creating a sensation at 19. Her success stemmed from new European fascination with black African culture, unqualified on-stage joie de vie, and appearing almost entirely nude. The artist capitalized on an assumption of wildness, at one point famously dressed only in a girdle of bananas (Danse Sauvage), then evolved into “The Ebony Venus” with extravagant behavior outside the theater.
Some of this we learn in a prologue by Master of Ceremonies Chris Bolan in a this-book-report-is-about speech. (Bolan’s dreadful, ersatz French accent keeps narration a parody. Not his fault.) Some we see when late and uncoordinated, Baker joins the chorus at a New York rehearsal.
Showgirls – Ruby (Melissa Victor), Opal (Zuri Washington), Pearl (Katelyn Bowman), and Jewel (Kimberlee D. Murray) – watch disdainfully as Josephine practices posing and making faces. The girl gives them “heebeegeebees.” In an era when jazz age colloquials were rampant, others are, alas, neglected. The four – Murray in particular – sing, dance, and sass well. Also in La Revue, standing in for all men, is Gem (James A. Pierce III) who does none of these well.
The minute the thespians get off the boat “white folks got nice.” It’s a case of Negrophilia (an actual word). “We Love Everything Black,” sing the French. Joe Komara who also plays Maurice Chevalier and Heather Hurst who also performs as Mistinguette both overact, imbuing neither icon with charm or any similarity to the originals. (YouTube anyone?) Inclusion feels like filler. Catherine Calloway and Jed Peterson (who appears to have talent) round out the cast.
Josephine herself is splendidly portrayed by Iris Beaumier. A beaming presence, the actress has a fine voice with excellent range and control. Her open face telegraphs every emotion. Beaumier and/or Choreographer Kim Grier-Martinez clearly watched film on the protagonist. Performance movement is a bull’s eye. This Josephine poses, wiggles, jerks, and kicks and mugs with affinity to Ms. Baker. Oh those knees!
“When In France, Do As the French Do,” the Americans sing, and then, in case we don’t get the idea, “Things Are Looking Up Over Here.” (The latter song is better.) At the time, the USA was stringently segregated and young dancers’ lives very different at home. In this version, Baker is pushed to the forefront because an artist sees her preening in little more than a thin shift and determines she’d look great on the poster.
The story is excerpted and condensed. We see Josephine only from 1925-1927. Her first autobiography arrives long before it got written. (They do tell us this.) “I Remember Things,” she poignantly sings. In Berlin, the young star is declared “decadent” by none other than young Adolph Hitler. (By May 1926, Hitler had assumed the title of supreme leader –Führer.) “Strange Brew in Berlin” is evocative.
We hear her perform Vincent Scotto’s “J’ai Deux Amours,” which became the artist’s signature: I have two loves/My country and Paris./By them always/ Is my heart ravished. (Translation – Madeleine Peyroux.) Though it was recorded in 1931, insertion is not untoward. A sentence or two of explanation might be added.
Josephine gave up her citizenship when she again encountered rampant racism in America. The artist wrote about/campaigned for Civil Rights. She also worked with the French Resistance out of love for the country that welcomed her. There’s no mention of her Rainbow Tribe, the many children she adopted and/or purchased on her travels. Epilogue?
We catch glimpses of romance (men were legion) and hear the names of a few writ-large artists then populating Paris. There are, however, endless lively anecdotes about her life off stage, not a single one included. Josephine writes home periodically. Other members of the troop are jealous. When the prima donna leaves for Folies Bergere, some thespians stay, some go home.
Book writer Glynn Borders seems to wash over her story. Except for dates, there’s nothing really false; the script offers a sense of where Josephine came from and what she became. Side conversations are mostly cliché however, and many opportunities to illuminate are lost. The musical needs both research and weeding.
Music and lyrics (Mario E. Sprouse, also the pianist) are an uneven combination of fitting songs and those thick with derivation. Vamped piano is repetitive where it might be tuneful. Though the original Danse Sauvage had horns, for example, it was also born on melody missing here.
Director Tai Thompson seems to have given her actors too free a hand.
Raymond Pizzaro deserves kudos for costumes which correctly embody the period and flatter. Only the cropped Chinese dress Josephine wears seems a miss.
Recommended: Josephine Baker’s foster son Jean-Claude Baker wrote a 1993 biography of her titled Josephine: The Hungry Heart. It’s a terrific read.
Photos by Carlos Cardoza
Opening: Iris Beaumier (Josephine Baker)
La Mama presents
The Dark Star From Harlem: The Spectacular Rise of Josephine Baker
Music & Lyrics-Mario E. Sprouse
Directed by Tai Thompson
Ellen Stewart Theater
66 East 4th Street