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BWW Review: JOSEPHINE Puts Showbiz's First Black Superstar in a One-of-a-Kind Spotlight at Theater West End

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Star Tymisha Harris is as wowing as the underappreciated legend she emulates in this one-woman show.

BWW Review: JOSEPHINE Puts Showbiz's First Black Superstar in a One-of-a-Kind Spotlight at Theater West End

I've seen shows of all stripes in my many years as a patron, but JOSEPHINE is officially my first "Burlesque Cabaret Dream Play." That's what its creators call it, and once you see it, you concede that no other descriptor could quite do.

Burlesque because its subject, Josephine Baker, one of the 20th Century's first Black international superstars, came to fame as an erotic dancer with a bawdy routine of innuendo and a suggestive skirt of bananas. That 1920s repertoire comes to life in JOSEPHINE, where star Tymisha Harris makes her wardrobe changes onstage in only partially obscured view, emerging at times in nothing more than that revealing banana belt and a pair of bedazzled pasties.

Cabaret because Harris stands in the spotlight before a vintage microphone for beautifully sung torch songs and ballads, a blend of Baker originals and songbook standards - some sentimental, others amusing and risqué.

Dream because the story glides through time with an ethereal ease, as though the Baker we meet on stage is a phantom looking back on a life long ago, told as memory more than memoir. Dream, too, because Baker had one. A civil rights activist in America and abroad, she famously insisted that all her audiences be integrated when segregation was the norm, renounced her U.S. citizenship in response to lawful racism, and was the only woman invited to speak at Martin Luther King, Jr.'s March on Washington in 1963. Later, when Dr. King was assassinated, Coretta Scott King invited Baker to take his place as leader of the movement and champion of his dream (she declined, citing her children's safety).

A bisexual woman and a drag star before "drag" was really a thing, she envisioned a day when her unique personhood would be acceptable to America - a dream that becomes the show's dramatic crux when Harris balladizes Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'," awash in beams of red, white, and blue (symbolic of both her homes: America and France). Reflecting the show's 2016 origin and her Orlando roots, Harris works in a subtle tribute to the tragedy at Pulse.

Play because, for all its mixed-medium forays, JOSEPHINE is fundamentally a work of musical theatre. Captivating and intimate, it tells the story of this one incredible life, Josephine Baker: recording artist, motion picture actress, Broadway groundbreaker, American activist, French spy, striptease artist, rule breaker, a lover to legends, and more. So astounding is her biography it's a wonder her name's not better known.

It is a marvel to fathom the many aptitudes required of Tymisha Harris in crafting and delivering JOSEPHINE, a 75-minute, one-act, one-woman show that the Orlando native co-created and took to New York and international tour. She, like the trailblazer she honors, is a singular force of manifold talent. As a singer and dancer, there's her fluency across multifarious styles. As an actor, her ability to age her character 50 years in as many minutes. And as a storyteller, to so effectively impart biography with wit, emotion, and economy of time. Harris and her co-creators distill an astonishing life to its most compelling chapters and achievements. The effect is to leave audiences indignant that Josephine Baker's story hasn't been more widely told - and, I suspect, to make Ms. Baker and her progeny proud.

TV star RuPaul once called on Hollywood to sign Harris and adapt this show for film. That it hasn't happened yet seems almost a dereliction of duty by the talent scouts at HBO. Our opening-night audience sat in silent but obvious consensus as to the star power on stage. Even more importantly, we learned about a legacy that demands the honor Harris has finally given it.

By happenstance and thanks to shuffled schedules, I ended up seeing JOSEPHINE on the same day I had seen ABC's new Superstar tribute to Whitney Houston and then Jennifer Hudson's turn as Aretha Franklin in Respect. Each of those stories seems equally integral to the lineage of Black women in entertainment, and indeed even to the story of civil rights in America. I'm thankful to Harris and Theater West End for adding to the narrative.

The particulars of Western society were very different in Baker's time, but the core struggles and dominant themes in JOSEPHINE are very much today's. Alas, this latest run at Theater West End - rescheduled from the early pandemic - only spans three days: August 27th through 29th, 2021. By the time you read this, that window will have closed, but take heart: Harris performs JOSEPHINE with some regularity in Central Florida and around the world, and she recently debuted a new show exploring Baker's friendship with Grace Kelly. That one is on its way to more stages too. Follow both shows at www.josephinetheplay.com, and get tickets for other upcoming performances in Theater West End's mini-season for 2021 at www.theaterwestend.com.

Note: JOSEPHINE at Theater West End was performed as an intermission-less production with tracked music. Elsewhere, the show is sometimes staged with a live band or orchestra (with or without intermission) or in abridged concert/cabaret form. It should not be confused with Ken Waissman's Deborah Cox-led Josephine, which premiered at Florida's Asolo Rep, also in 2016.


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