The Sensational Josephine Baker
Cheryl Howard proves stronger as performer than playwright in this solo show about the legendary entertainer.
The show has "La Baker" flashing back from her triumphant 1975 comeback performance (at age 68) at Paris' Bobino Theatre, where she recalls her hardscrabble roots as an unwanted child in the slums of St. Louis and her meteoric ascent from street urchin to dresser to chorine to international star -- albeit one who wasn't fully appreciated in the United States. (The play makes a fuss over Baker's disastrous appearance in 1936's Ziegfeld Follies).
Howard is particularly strong in the segments on Baker's early years; and she aces an amazing array of ages and characters. One minute, she's a brazen, knobby-kneed girl stealing coal from a moving boxcar; the next, she's Baker's grandmother improvising a confidence-building fairy tale and promising a treat of cornbread and strawberry jam (which you can practically taste).
One of Howard's cleverer devices is to introduce a documentary-style interview with an embittered ex-colleague (a star dancer whom Baker quickly upstaged and far outpaced). Lydia Jones' hilariously cutting commentary -- delivered in a quavery voice, from a frame atremble with palsy -- helps to counter the hagiographic quality that can both suffuse and sink tributes of this sort.
Howard also transforms herself into Jazz Age nightclub entrepreneuse Bricktop, Baker's closest friend (and one of many alleged "lady lovers," in the parlance of the day), who serves as self-appointed romantic counselor. Baker, like many a diva before and after her, tended to have self-defeating taste in men. Indeed, her breakup with her husband, the industrialist Jean Lion, gets short shrift, prompting a brief tirade from "Bricky" about women's prescribed roles.
Also glided over is Baker's beloved "Rainbow Tribe," a dozen children of varying races whom she started adopting in the 1950s. Baker went broke housing her wards in a castle in Dordogne, yet they get only a passing mention here. Her deep desire to be the good, loving mother she never had surely deserves more attention, as do her exploits in the service of the French Resistance. (Indeed, she was the first American woman to be awarded the Croix de Guerre).