by Samuel L. Leiter
Cush Jumbo isn’t an easy name to forget; nor, for that matter is the electrifying British actress to whom it belongs. Jumbo is the “I” in Josephine and I, the winning one-woman musical biodrama she wrote and stars in about Josephine Baker (1906-1975), the glamorous black performer from St. Louis who rose to fame in 1920s New York and became an international star. The spirited show, originally done at London’s Bush Theatre in 2013, is now in the cabaret environs of Joe’s Pub, where you sit, knee to elbow, at tiny candlelit tables from which you can order food and drinks (there’s no cover charge). The intimate room is a perfect venue for the multitalented Jumbo, who, in addition to recently co-starring on Broadway with Hugh Jackman in The River, was a terrific Marc Antony in last season’s all-woman Julius Caesar at St. Anne’s Warehouse. That production, like this one, was staged by the gifted Phyllida Lloyd.
Following an old-time jazzy overture played by the excellent pianist/music director/arranger Joseph Atkins, practically hidden behind an upright on the postage stamp stage, Jumbo makes a dramatic entrance, quickly ingratiating herself by informing us in her native British accent of how, as a child of eight, the offspring of a British mother and Nigerian father, she discovered and identified with Josephine Baker. But since this character is listed in the program as “Girl,” just how much of her is autobiographical is left to the audience’s imagination. The Girl’s obsession with Baker extends to her having painted a Tiny Tears doll in Baker’s skin color (she often handles and talks to it as if it were a puppet-confidante) and having collected all sorts of Baker memorabilia as she grew up.
Soon, the Girl morphs into the young Baker herself, telling her story in the first person, speaking in the voices of various people in Baker’s life, but frequently slipping back into the Girl’s persona to describe her life as an aspiring actress. While there are a few moments when it’s not immediately clear who’s talking, by and large Jumbo’s exceptional ability to do a variety of American accents quickly establishes the speaker. The Girl’s story involves her relationship with her environmentalist boyfriend, and the sequence of auditions she’s been having for a lead role in a Hollywood-based TV crime series; if she’s cast, it will mean huge sums of money, but also will require a major life change affecting her relationship.
This tale is smoothly woven into a recounting of the highlights of Baker’s life, from Broadway chorus girl in Shuffle Along to a spectacular career as a Parisienne cabaret star at the Folies Bergère, noted for her scanty—but also elaborate—costumes and unconventional lifestyle. Baker’s private life (she first married at 13, was divorced a year later, and had many lovers and husbands) is covered, including her activity with the French resistance; given especially sharp emphasis is the discrimination she had to face in America, as opposed to the acceptance she found abroad. Late in the piece, we discover Baker as an important participant in the early 1960s civil rights movement led by Dr. King.
There could be no better conclusion for the show than for Jumbo to give her impression of Baker’s commanding 1973 rendition at Carnegie Hall of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’”. The Girl tells us she herself received racial insults, although her experiences pale when compared to Baker’s. Still, given the recent news, the times don’t seem to have been a-changin’ all that much.
Josephine and I offers Jumbo numerous opportunities to sing and dance in the Baker mold, including familiar songs like “I’m Just Wild about Harry.” Both still and video projections (by Ravi Deepres) provide images that illustrate the people and times of Baker’s colorful life. At one point, the star walks through the audience, wearing a Hattie McDaniel-like calico apron and cap, picking up dolls and identifying them as the dozen children she adopted from seven countries. (One of them, Jean-Claude Baker, proprietor of Chez Josephine on Theatre Row, died this January.)
Sporting a boyish ‘20s bob, and, making the most of her lithe dancer’s body, Jumbo wears a sequence of clever costumes designed by Anthony Ward. While simple, they allow her to suggest, without being too literal, Baker’s fabled allure. Kate Ashton’s lighting, based on Neil Austin’s original design, greatly enhances the effect. Jumbo exhibits such a kaleidoscopic range of physical grace, vocal ability, wit, charm, poignancy, anger, determination, strength, and intelligence, not to mention vivacity, energy, and good will, that her lack of resemblance to Baker quickly becomes insignificant.
Napoleon may or may not have said, “Not tonight, Josephine,” but when it comes to this show, I can definitely recommend, “Yes, tonight, Josephine.”
Josephine and I
425 Lafayette Street, NYC
Through April 5
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).