Josephine (Stage 1, Westbury Theatre)
Here is an entertaining, if gentle primer on the life and times of Josephine Baker, the multi-threat talent African-American performer who — generations ago — escaped the mean streets of St. Louis and became the toast of Paris and beyond.
The team of Orlando-based co-creators Michael Marinaccio, Tod Kimbro and Tymisha Harris – who channels the “Black Pearl” with considerable grace in this solo show with simple staging – have fashioned a rather straight-ahead chronological bio-play that took the packed, smitten Westbury audience from the early days of stage-struck Freda Josephine McDonald to global stardom to her death in much-reduced circumstances at 68 (1975) in Paris.
It was a remarkable life by any reckoning, and really, part of the problem any honest chroniclers face in doing the woman justice is choosing which bits to leave out. While her affair with Frida Kahlo (when Baker was a Free French spy!) among five hetero marriages is captured here, her relationships with, for example, blues great Clara Smith or novelist Georges Simenon aren’t even mentioned. There is simply too much terrific material to work with. e.e. cummings? Hemingway?
That said, via song, dance, burlesque, cabaret, panto, generally non-cringe-making expository storytelling and even a bit of audience participation, Harris does her Josephine proud for the most part in a well-seasoned production. Stressing Baker’s civil rights efforts in later life, along with the myriad racist indignities she suffered, seems particularly timely and appropriate at the time of the Charlottesville anniversary — not to mention the recent passing of another pioneering superstar, Aretha Franklin.
There were a couple of technical opening night glitches, likely resulting in an unfortunate reading of Blue Skies, but this practiced team quickly recovered. No doubt they have got used to the standing O the grateful crowd bestowed on Harris — and, you reckon, a 20th century life so brilliantly lived.
– Alan Kellogg