Full disclosure: I am a biography junkie. If I learn about a famous person that has even the inkling of a joie de vivre, I am on it like a bonnet. Josephine Baker is no exception. It’s a fascinating story: an “against the odds” tale where victory comes for Baker through her tenacity and her gift of dancing with wild abandonment. So too has Cush Jumbo brought that same energy on the small cabaret stage at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater. Ben Brantley of the New York Times nailed it by describing Ms. Jumbo as having “juggernaut energy” – it was a wild, fun 90-minute trip and I had a front row seat.
In the intimate, cabaret-style seating of Joe’s Pub, it feels like you’re a small, private audience in a secluded speakeasy, hearing about Josephine’s life, and in a way, the life of “Girl” whose experiences parallels Josephine’s in many ways. While I was expecting Ms. Jumbo to play Josephine throughout the 90-minute show, it actually was a mix of the two characters: the English actress playing Josephine Baker and Josephine Baker herself. While that sounds bizarre, Ms. Jumbo made effortless transitions between these characters, with additional characters mixed in between. I told you it was a wild ride!
The show opens with “Girl” arriving to the stage late. Hurriedly, she hands off her dog, Henry, and accoutrement to the stage manager, apologizing to us as she readies herself for the performance. “Are any of you actors?” she asks us. “Well, then, you KNOW how I FEEL!” Immediately, she has drawn in her audience, and you can’t help but root for her. From behind a podium, she brings out a baby doll “made over” into Josephine Baker. She had been entranced by old Hollywood films as a child, she explains, and was thrilled to find someone who looked like her in Ms. Baker: someone with dark skin and dark hair. She produces another prop from behind the podium: a tape recorder and starts to play it. It’s an interview with Ms. Baker and the actress starts speaking along with her. Soon, she is Josephine and we hardly notice the transition.
Ms. Jumbo takes us through the life of Baker: through her early beginnings dancing and performing in less-than-savory places to her move to the Great White Way (in an all-black-revue) to her adopted home of France, where she is welcomed and revered. She was loyal to France to the point that she served as a spy in World War II and received the Croix de Guerre and the Medal of Resistance by the French government for her efforts. She raises a family of 12 adopted children known as her “Rainbow Tribe.” We participate in revealing her children by opening presents under our seats: each doll representing each child she adopted from a variety of countries.
Ms. Jumbo masters Josephine’s social climb: you can see changes physically in her carriage and even in her voice and inflections. Her Southern accent that we hear in the beginning slowly disappears as she moves further away from her humble beginnings. All with an exhilarating energy that makes you afraid to blink for fear you’ll miss a moment of magic.
Beyond the story of Josephine Baker, we see the parallels between the life of Baker and the young actress who portrays her: opportunities; choices; racism. No doubt some of these anecdotes come from Ms. Jumbo’s own experiences and are portrayed with such depth that it is hard to believe that it isn’t autobiographical. Her ability to make me feel for both characters at every turn is an enormous credit to her mastery as a performer.
Cush Jumbo has made it clear that she is an actor worth watching as her star is on the rise. Any place that she is able to take you, you’ll be glad you went. Through April 5th.