Singer, Dancer, Campaigner, Spy
Josephine at the Burton Taylor Studio, Oxford from October 5-9
Review by Jon Lewis
Franco-American dancer Josephine Baker was an unreliable witness of her own life according to Leona Allen’s new play, Josephine. Performed at the Burton Taylor Studio, Jesse Briton’s Holm Theatre production, supported by Bath’s The Egg, Cardiff’s Wales Millennium Centre and the Oxford Playhouse, also suggests that today’s public has forgotten about Baker, a star who shone brightest in pre-war Paris.
Ebony Feare’s Josephine has a radiant smile that hides a past that’s not as sunny. Returning to the US as an embodied ghost fifty years after her death, Josephine alights in the former speakeasy and club, now renamed Café Josephine which her son founded and the grandchildren now own. Debbie Duru’s extravagant set shows off Baker’s jazz age memorabilia as well as featuring a mini stage recalling Baker’s sexy performances at the Folies Bergères. Behind the glamourous front Baker assumes, she recalls witnessing riots in her home town of St Louis that burned out African-Americans, and as a child, when she was cruelly beaten as a maid, a job taken to pay the rent.
Twice married before she’s out of her teens, Baker, the surname of her second husband, escapes St Louis for New York and a career in entertainment. A dresser who got a lucky break as an understudy in the chorus line, by the age of nineteen, Baker is in Paris, promoted to audiences as ‘the African Queen’. She danced with a fake banana dress in a parody of the ‘savage’ and impressed modernist admirers like Pablo Picasso and Frieda Kahlo. Taking on all the other roles in the play, Sadi Masego and Daniel Kofi Wealthyland are perfect foils to Feare, switching accents and costumes regularly.
It was Baker’s non-musical accomplishments that are astounding. During the Second World War she acted as a spy, protected by her French passport, and twenty years later, took on the role as a leading civil rights activist alongside luminaries like Martin Luther King. She became a teacher in France, promoting change and brought up an adopted son Henri, from Algeria. It’s a shame there wasn’t a larger audience at the matinee for this fascinating drama.