New York audiences have come to know Cush Jumbo for her memorable dramatic performances in the Broadway run of The River and Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. What we didn't realize in those two shows is how funny she can be. That changes with the U.S. debut of Josephine and I, Jumbo's solo show about legendary performer Josephine Baker. Not only is Jumbo a captivating actress, she's also an incredibly witty and incisive writer. While Baker's life has plenty of drama to go around (she was twice divorced by age 16), Jumbo and director Phyllida Lloyd keep the show buoyant and entertaining, aided greatly by the intimate environment of Joe's Pub. Jumbo has an instant rapport with the audience that will keep you laughing the night through.
Josephine Baker is mostly remembered today for her (then scandalous) "Banana Dance," which drove Paris audiences wild and made her a hot ticket on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1920s and '30s. Beyond her Jazz Age fame, however, Baker led a remarkably varied and idiosyncratic life marked by politics, fashion, and war. Like Adah Isaacs Menken before her and Madonna after, she was never far from the center of the story.
Jumbo walks us through Baker's extraordinary life, from her impoverished childhood in St. Louis to her meteoric rise as the toast of Paris to her debt-plagued twilight years. Along the way we hear about her participation in the French resistance against Nazi occupation, her civil rights activism, and her "rainbow tribe" of 12 children adopted from all over the world (decades before Angelina Jolie would attempt a similar feat). Baker was a genuine individual, marching to the beat of her own drum and facing criticism from all sides.
We get a sense of the hurdles Baker faced in a highly segregated entertainment industry when Jumbo reads excerpts from a Time review that referred to her as a "Negro wench." It would be easy to shrug this off as an artifact from a more racist age, but Jumbo doesn't allow us to do this, reciting some even more off-color comments posted under a 2012 Observer profile about her own performance in Caesar. Racism hasn't really gone away — we've just found more clever ways to hide it.
Jumbo peppers Baker's bio with asides about her own life, comparing and contrasting the challenges black actresses face today with those of Baker's generation. While some of these anecdotes are undoubtedly fictional, you're never able to clearly distinguish which. Jumbo sells every moment with such vigorous commitment that even when logic suggests she's playing a role, one can't help but suspect she's telling the God's honest truth.
With Joseph Atkins at the piano, music pervades the play's 90 minutes. Jumbo sings along in French and English with a resonant and clear voice. She conveys Baker's rubbery limbs as she dances along, wearing Anthony Ward's beautiful and ostentatious costumes.
Under Lloyd's sharp direction, there's never a dull moment. Ravi Deepres supplements Jumbo's onstage action with tasteful projections that help capture the vibe of the times as Baker passes from era to era. Throughout her 68 years, Baker never stopped performing.
As she portrays multiple characters while singing, dancing, and working up a sweat, one suspects that Jumbo has the same compulsion as her subject: the constant desire to work (and work it) on the stage. She is an immensely gifted actress who has revealed herself to be a very talented playwright with Josephine and I. Let's hope that the New York theater seasons without Cush Jumbo are few and far between.