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More Than a Banana Skirt: Deborah Cox Introduces a Multifaceted Josephine Baker

The world premiere of Josephine gives new voice to this iconic performer — and French spy.

"Josephine Baker touched the lives of so many people in so many different ways," reflects Broadway veteran Deborah Cox, who is currently embodying the icon of stage and screen in Asolo Repertory Theatre's world premiere of Josephine. "It's a really timely story," she says. "Josephine represented so much. This musical will touch everybody in a way that will inspire them to continue to move her legacy forward."

The legacy to which Cox is referring is Baker's remarkable, barrier-breaking career. Though the singer, dancer, and actress is best known for having taken the French stage in a now-iconic banana skirt, her story is packed with even more astonishing events. For instance, within a short six-year span, from 1939-1945, Baker not only starred at Paris' Folies Bergère and became entangled in a scandalous affair with Swedish Crown Prince Gustav VI, but she also worked as an operative in the French Resistance and served as a sub-lieutenant in the Women's Auxiliary of the French Air Force.

It is those six singular years that serve as the framework for Josephine, the new bio-musical with a book by Ellen Weston and Mark Hampton; music by Stephen Dorff; and lyrics by Emmy Award winner John Bettis. Featuring direction and choreography by two-time Tony Award nominee Joey McKneely, the production is "quite an amazing spectacle," according to Cox, who is able to showcase her skills as a singer, dancer, and actress while embodying a woman whom she sees as an "unsung hero."

Deborah Cox in Asolo Rep's production of Josephine.
(© Paul Tate dePoo III)

What excites you about this project?
I'm just excited that I get a chance to show the whole spectrum of who Josephine Baker was. We all know her from her famous banana dance. But we're delving into the fact that she fought in the French Resistance and she became this war hero, adopting all her 12 children, whom she called the Rainbow Tribe, and just her passion for humanity — those are some of the things that I really am excited about portraying in this role.

What do you find most fascinating about Josephine Baker?
She really, really lived life to the fullest — her drive and passion and fearlessness to just dive in and learn how to fly a plane, and teach herself how to dance, and how to do ballet en pointe, speak five languages and on top of that, be in the Resistance. She was this fearless avant-garde woman who did it all and wanted to do it all. I can only hope to do half of what she did in my own life.

How do you think she become such an icon?
I think when Europe embraced her, they didn't see any color lines, and she just took that and ran with it. That allowed her to really be who she was to her fullest. While struggling with all the turmoil that was happening in America, she was just celebrated in Europe, and I think that's part of the reason why this story is so important – especially being a woman and then a black woman on top of that. In those days women didn't have independence, they didn't have freedom like that. She represented this emancipated woman, uninhibited and not suppressed.

Deborah Cox, star of Josephine at Asolo Repertory Theatre.
(© David Gordon)

What do you appreciate about this show's treatment of her?
It's a very complex story, but the way it's told and the way it's written, it touches everybody's heart. I love that we focus on 1939 through 1945. We take that specific time and give the audience an opportunity to go inside her mind, which helps us to learn more about her as a person. So I'm really thrilled that's a story that we've decided to elaborate on. And it's a true story. There was a book written by Stephen Papich, who was one of her management team. And one of the stories in there was about her affair with this prince. A lot of the inspiration in the script is directly from her words. It was like living in a fairy tale because she was finally accepted for who she was and she didn't have to worry about color.

Tell me about how you got involved with this show.
Ken Waissman and the team reached out to me to come and read for the role, and I got this dress and this short little wig and showed up as Josephine. I have a real sort of affinity for her and for her character. I toured France with a couple of French artists before my recording deal, and Josephine was one of those iconic women that you see all over. It was an amazing journey because I got a chance to see how they responded to her and her influence on the culture there. She was the biggest star in the world at the time. She just made such a mark and influenced so many modern-day artists. That's what I was most fascinated by. So ten or fifteen years later, when this story was brought to my attention, it was like, "Wow, oh my gosh, this is an opportunity to originate a role? And originate this woman's story? And bring the essence of her to the stage?" That was something I just couldn't refuse. It is like a fairy tale for me to be able to do this role.

What are your hopes for this show?
Well, we're going straight to Broadway. Because this is a story that absolutely needs to be told. I think people have this concept of her, through the banana dance, that she was just sort of this sexual frivolous being. But she had a lot of depth, and she was a very complex woman.

Deborah Cox stars in Josephine through May 29.
(© Paul Tate dePoo III)
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