By: Paulanne Simmons
Although Josephine Baker was a major celebrity in France, during her lifetime she was never a star in her native land. However, more than 40 years after her death there seems to be a spate of shows and books about this highly original woman who delighted onstage and scandalized offstage.
Baker has inspired numerous biographies, including one written by her son, the late Jean-Claude Baker, owner of the restaurant, Chez Josephine. Since 2012, there have been at least three plays based on her life.
The latest of these theatrical endeavors is Josephine, A Burlesque Cabaret Dream Play, written by Tod Kimbro, directed by Michael Marinaccio and featuring Tymisha Harris as Baker. The show debuted at the 2016 San Diego Fringe Festival and then went on to Orlando, Florida, the Winnipeg Fringe Festival, and Indianapolis, winning a bushel of awards, before arriving at the Soho Playhouse, where fortunate New Yorkers will be able to see Harris perform magic until February 11.
Josephine combines, dance, song and spoken word to tell the dramatic story of the African-American entertainer who was born in St. Louis in 1906, achieved modest success in Broadway revues Shuffle Along and The Chocolate Dandies, and moved in the twenties to France, where her exotic looks and nude dancing made her an instant success.
Harris re-creates those dances, wearing Baker’s signature banana skirt. She also performs a gorgeous dance with huge white feather fans and sings Baker’s best-known songs, such as Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” the French/American “Autumn Leaves,” Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher” and her trademark “J’ai Deux Amours.”
With self-effacing good humor, Harris recounts the story behind Baker’s numerous husbands and lovers (both male and female), her unusual pets (“Currently, I have a pet cheetah named Chiquita, a goat named Toutoute, a pig named Albert, a snake named Kiki, and a chimpanzee named Ethel”) and her serving as a spy for the French Resistance (“they tucked secret messages inside my undergarments and just sent me on my way”).
But Harris becomes serious when the story turns to Baker’s activism in the Civil Rights Movement. Her interpretation of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A Changin” is breathtaking.
The truth is Harris’s rich and powerful voice is far superior to Baker’s, which often sounded thin and raspy. She’s also sexy in a way that’s most probably far more effective for modern audiences. One likes to think Baker, so generous in life, would have respected and not resented Harris’s talent, and appreciated the tribute.
Josephine, A Burlesque Cabaret Dream Play runs through Feb. 11, 2018 at Soho Playhouse, 15 Vandam St., http://sohoplayhouse.com.