BWW Reviews: JOSEPHINE AND I Compares 20th Century Racism With Today's Subtler Variety
Josephine Baker may be the name patrons are far more familiar with as they enter Joe's Pub for British actress Cush Jumbo's solo play, but it's the I in Josephine and I that provides the evening with its most significant emotional moments.
Extending her stay in Gotham after appearing on Broadway in The River, Jumbo reprises the performance that earned her the London Evening Standard's Emerging Talent Award. Since the text contains a reference or two to the playwright/performer's actual career, it can be assumed that the character listed in the program as "the girl," is at least partially based on her, but Jumbo has something more ambitious in mind than just autobiography.
The girl's childhood fascination with movie starlets received a big kick in the pants when she first saw Baker in the French film Zouzou. More accustomed to seeing Hollywood blondes in leading roles, it was exciting for her to spot someone who looked like her being all glamourous before the camera, surrounded by white people who didn't seem to care about her race.
The evening is set up as the contemporary woman doing a solo show where she plays Baker narrating her life story; using her talent for dancing and clowning to escape a rough upbringing in St. Louis, being married twice as a young teen, finding the acceptance and equality in France that she never found in America and adopting a dozen children from different ethnicities as her Rainbow Tribe, to prove that children of different races can love each other as a family.
Under Phyllida Lloyd's direction, Jumbo's sizzling star power is energetically displayed as the attention-hungry kid starts breaking into eccentric dances to stand out in the chorus line. Though not strictly a musical, Jumbo's strong vocal chops reveal Baker's growth as an artist through the years, as she sings snippets of period tunes.
But the contemporary girl can't help interrupting the show every so often to talk about her own career challenges. While Baker dealt with segregation and restricted rights, the present-day actress talks about subtler offences, like the code words use by casting people when they want her to play "blacker," or the difference between the way French audiences viewed Baker's nude body on stage and the way co-workers viewed her nude body on a film shoot.
On the less subtle side, she reads a disgustingly racist letter from someone objecting to her appearance in a Shakespeare play. (Lloyd directed Jumbo as Mark Antony in an all-female Julius Caesar.)
Her pain seems devastatingly real when the actress, knowing that being black limits the number of lucrative jobs offered to her, faces the possibility of having to make a very emotional decision if a huge career break comes through.
By the evening's end, a duo-rendition of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changin,'" the actress/playwright has fully acknowledged the debt she owes to the woman whose shoulders she stands upon by offering her shoulders to the young black girl who may someday be sitting in an audience watching her.
Cush Jumbo is a thrilling talent and Josephine and I is beautifully done.