Theater Review: ‘Josephine and I’

March 15, 2015 7:21 pm Last Updated: March 16, 2015 3:33 pm

NEW YORK—Cush Jumbo shines a spotlight on dancer-singer-actress Josephine Baker, turning in a bravura performance in her one-woman show “Josephine and I” at Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater.

The piece begins with an actress (listed in the show program as “Girl”) talking about her years-long interest in Baker. It all began when she was a child watching the film “Zouzou” and saw for the first time a black woman as the lead in a movie, instead of in the role of a servant.

From that moment on, the actress became an unabashed fan, researching Baker’s history, collecting bits of memorabilia, and even learning to talk in Baker’s cadence, as demonstrated by playing a taped interview Baker once gave and then mimicking her voice perfectly.

Through this method the actress begins to assume Baker’s persona, while taking the audience on a journey through Baker’s life—one that stretches from her childhood in St. Louis to her early days on Broadway, her stardom in Paris, and beyond.

The real strength of the piece is Jumbo’s ability to put a human face on her characters, particularly when it comes to Baker’s experiences with prejudice or the lack thereof.

Jumbo creates two powerful and identifiable characters, never letting either one slip over the line into parody or self-indulgence.
One particularly interesting tale centers on the “shade system” Baker encountered when she was in the chorus of the all-black Broadway musical “Shuffle Along.” Lighter skinned performers of color were favored over those of darker skin, and Baker was “two shades too dark.”

Later on, we can hear the amazement in Baker’s voice when, on her first visit to Paris, she realizes she can eat in the same restaurants as white people, use the same public restrooms, and even have a white dresser in the club where she performs. 

Cush Jumbo as Josephine Baker. (Joan Marcus)
Cush Jumbo as Josephine Baker. (Joan Marcus)

Other interesting stories regarding Baker include her work with the French Resistance in World War II and her battles with the NAACP, which accused her (as seen in film footage) of not doing enough in the struggle for racial equality in America.

Particularly fascinating is a sequence detailing Baker’s first show in Paris and the dance routine that made her a sensation. Since no visual record of that dance exists, the Girl is forced to imagine what that performance must have been like. Jumbo creates a beautiful montage of dance and movement, aided with the judicious use of some projections.

Jumbo is also able to handle the show’s various musical numbers, as well as put across some of Baker’s trademark dance routines with perfect aplomb. 

At the same time, Jumbo interweaves the story of the Girl into the tale. She has just come from her seventh callback for a major role in an upcoming television series and also has had her own encounters with prejudice during her career.

A story involving actress Hattie McDaniel is particularly illuminating as an illustration of both how much and how little has changed over the years regarding race in the entertainment industry.

Offering far more than a standard biographical tale, “Josephine and I” looks at a significant figure in the history of entertainment.
Jumbo takes a swipe at the casting mentality of Hollywood by having the Girl—a character somewhat based on her own experiences—hilariously describe her endless rounds of callbacks where she’s continually asked to vary the ethnicity of the character she’d be playing.

Another theme present is the seeming impossibility of being able to have it all. While Baker became a star in Paris and eventually a much beloved one elsewhere, she was never able to have children, was married numerous times, and eventually lost the castle she purchased in France due to financial mismanagement.

The mismanagement was due, in part, to Baker being so busy performing in order to pay for the upkeep on the castle as well as provide for the 12 children she adopted, that she had no time to supervise the finances of the property.

As for the Girl, she finds herself facing a personal crisis of her own, even as she’s on threshold of the stardom she’s wanted for so long. Then again, achieving one’s dreams is not always as satisfying as first imagined.

Baker learns this lesson full well when dancing on a vaudeville stage for the first time, after spending countless evenings watching the performances from the back row of the balcony in that same theater. The illusion from up high is quite different than the reality down front.

Direction by Phyllida Lloyd is excellent, giving Jumbo the latitude to create two powerful and identifiable characters, yet never letting either one slip over the line into parody or self-indulgence.

The show is helped immeasurably by the very enjoyable piano accompaniment by Joseph Atkins. Atkins is also responsible for the show’s musical direction and arrangements.

Offering far more than a standard biographical tale, “Josephine and I” looks at a significant figure in the history of entertainment while showing how certain issues regarding both women and people of color are still a long way from where they need to be. 

‘Josephine and I’
Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater
425 Lafayette St., NYC
Tickets: 212-967-7555 or PublicTheater.org
Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes (no intermission)
Closes: April 5

 Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.