Ernest Hemingway described her as “the most sensational woman anybody ever saw, or ever will”. Looking at the life of Josephine Baker, it’s not difficult to see why she evoked such admiration and became an inspiration for Cush Jumbo and the play that’s pumped by the heart of an artist who’s enthralled by her art.
Deemed the ‘Black Venus,’ Josephine Baker was an American dancer, singer, actress, and activist, who performed up against racial prejudices to find fame in Paris in the 1920s. Jumbo charts her life from her childhood and initial break as a performer, to her comeback performances shortly before her death. And she does it with real gusto.
Jumbo’s stage is a cabaret club, draped in deep red velvet, cosy tables and globe like lamps. Accompanied by live music, and the razzle dazzle that defined Baker’s performances, Jumbo knits together Baker’s life with that of her own, neatly drawing parallels between the experiences and challenges faced by the two artists.
Jumbo clearly resonates with Baker’s passion for her craft and the challenges she faced. But the play is more than just an homage to a pioneering artist who “wasn’t the maid”; it’s a map of progress. As Jumbo reads out the discriminatory reviews Baker received from American critics on her return to America, she drops in a shocking comment left under her own profile piece published in a national newspaper in 2012. There’s recognition that things have changed, as well as a stark reminder that there’s still some way to go, all wrapped up in a light and joyful performance.
Phyllida Lloyd, who previously directed Jumbo in the all-female Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse, directs her here, in what can only be deemed an impressive display of unwavering energy; no mean feat on a sweltering summer’s evening. The scenes which focus on Baker’s early life, do feel a little drawn out, but are compensated by the concluding and mesmerising performance of ‘The Times They Are a Changing’.
As both writer and performer, Cush Jumbo not only captures the boundless talent, vigour and promise of change that Josephine Baker imprinted on the world, but thrusts it back onto her audience with lasting effect; her voice and talent hang in the air long after the curtain call. Allez!
Josephine and I, Bush Theatre
(Originally published on What’s on Stage – July ’13)