Josephine and I
Bush Theatre, Shepherds Bush
Until 17 August
The name Josephine Baker will mean very little to today’s generation, but her life provides a colourful and fascinating subject for a one woman show.
Born into a poor black family in Missouri, she is forced to leave home, aged 13, and via work in nightclubs and chorus lines, she is serendipitously spotted by a producer taken with her precocious talent who offers her a job in a new show in Paris: La Revue Nègre. From there she quickly progresses to the Folies Bergère. Her exotic and sensational dance routines transform her into a star of the twenties. She soon owns her own cabaret, and becomes the muse of artists like Picasso and his circle. Working and living in Paris has set her free from the oppressive racism of the USA, and on visits back home, she is again and again confronted with discrimination despite her worldwide fame. She works as a courier for the French Resistance during the Nazi occupation, and sets up her own ‘united nations’ by adopting 12 children from around the world who she houses in her magnificent chateau. She was a vociferous civil rights campaigner and was invited to speak at Martin Luther King’s mass rally in Washington in 1963. She died, aged 68, in 1975 only four days after a final sell-out performance, attended by the likes of Mick Jagger, Sophia Loren and Shirley Bassey .
Cush Jumbo gives a bravura, fast-paced performance interweaving episodes of Baker’s life with her own as a black actress today. She is, like Baker, a multi-talented performer – dancer, actress, singer and comedienne. And she wrote the script! She takes us on an emotional roller-coaster, from comic stand-up, through pathos, to political comment and euphoric joie de vivre. Her final personal rendering of Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are a Changing’ is an apt coda to an uplifting, informative and entertaining evening. Phyllida Lloyd’s tight and imaginative direction, with only sparse props, provides the ideal framework for Cush Jumbo’s very personal take on Baker’s life. The Bush’s cabaret style seating provides the ideal setting.