Josephine (Stage 1, Westbury Theatre)
By Marc Horton
Last year on a visit to Paris we stayed at a charming hotel where each floor was dedicated to a famous resident of that wonderful city. For example, folks stepping from the elevator on the second floor faced a seven-foot- tall portrait of a pensive and droopy-eyed Marcel Proust. Those on the fourth were treated to seven-foot Lumière brothers, pioneers of cinema.
Those of us on third were met with a seven-foot Josephine Baker, the dancer-chanteuse-spy-civil rights activist-philanthropist-mother of 12, who died in Paris in 1975 after a long, rich, tempestuous life that had begun 68 years earlier in hardscrabble St. Louis, Mo.
Trust me, there are few better things to greet you as you head out for your morning cafe au lait and pain au chocolat than a huge picture of Baker, with her kiss curls, sparkling eyes, bright smile and seductive come-hither look.
And there is no better way to begin this year’s Fringe binge than Josephine, an utterly captivating show, where triple-threat performer Tymisha Harris brings Baker to full-blown life. Harris earned her standing ovation. This show, a Fringe returnee, deserves sellouts.
With a life so crammed with events, playwright Tod Kimbro was faced with making some hard decisions on what to put in and what to leave out. Safe to say, he gets it right, although I was slightly disappointed that he ignored Baker’s Croix de Guerre, awarded to her by the French government for her work with the Resistance in the Second World War. That, however, is a minor cavil when it comes to a production that touches on just about everything else in this colourful life: five marriages, a sexual relationship with artist Frida Kahlo, dalliances with just about everyone who was anyone from Picasso to Hemingway to e.e. cummings, “whose name says it all,” according to the candid Baker.
This is an adult show to be sure and comes with some near nudity and mild audience participation. For example, sit in the front row and you might find yourself hooking up a feathery bra, not an easy thing for any fumble-fingers. And I wasn’t sure how Harris and director Michael Marinaccio would manage Baker’s ironic, sexy dance where she wears a skirt of artificial bananas, but they did.
And while the show is funny it also leads its audience through a history of civil rights by retelling lessons that should never be forgotten and seem particularly important at this time. In fact, the Harris rendition of Billie Holiday’s anthemic Strange Fruit is as wrenching and as moving as it can possibly be.
Baker was an important figure in the fight for civil rights in America, and worked closely with Martin Luther King. She was feisty, once storming out of the Stork Club in New York after being refused service. Grace Kelly stormed out with her, and later in life as Princess Grace would offer Baker and her 12 adopted children a safe haven when Baker fell on hard times.
This is one of the must-see shows of this year’s Fringe. It has everything: great singing, great dancing, a true story told well, and a performance that is unforgettable.
— Marc Horton is a former movie critic and books editor at the Edmonton Journal. If you want to know more about Josephine Baker he recommends Josephine Baker: The Hungry Heart, an irresistible memoir by her son Jean-Claude Baker.