The Sensational Josephine Baker, an off-off-Broadway one-woman play written and performed by Cheryl Howard, does a good job of outlining her career and life in an artistic fashion–except for one glaring omission: her bisexuality. Other details about her that were left out, could be chalked up to fitting an entire jam-packed life into an hour and three quarters. But leaving out the bisexuality of a revered bisexual icon whose “lady lovers” were documented in a major biography is shocking, in this day and age.
However, other than that glaring omission, the show was well written and well acted–especially when Howard transformed into characters that described Josephine from their own point of view. My two favorite characters in the show were the jealous fellow chorus girl, Lydia Jones (complaining about Josephine’s antics on the T.O.B.A. circuit, which Lydia describes as “Tough On Black Asses”) and Bricktop, another black American transplant to France who had her own nightclub (something Josephine copied.) Bricktop in reality (but not in the play) was Josephine’s one-time lover, as well as her long-time friend. The characters of “Lydia” and “Bricktop” pulled no punches about Josephine’s flaws and got most of the laughs in the show.
Several scenes from her childhood spent in poverty, but with lots of spirit, were spot on: picking up loose coal by the railroad tracks, clamboring up on a coal car to get more and almost being spirited off when the train started moving–she had to jump from the moving train. Another childhood scene showed her living and working as a servant full time in a house where she was treated like a slave. And another depicts her putting on shows in her grandmother’s basement, reveling in her chance to be a star..
Cleverly, there was an old-fashioned trunk on the side of the stage where Howard would pull clothing and accessories for costume changes between characters. But I thought her basic outfit seemed odd: overall shorts, with one leg shorter than the other, a blouse with fluttery short sleeves and white socks with black mary-jane tap shoes…until I saw a video clip of Josephine dancing in a 1927 French film…the outfit was obviously a re-creation of her film costume–see video clip below.
Some other things were absent from the play, like her first marriage at 13, the live-in maid/sexual abuse situation that motivated her relatives to marry her off so young, her grandmother’s memories of slavery, the dark side of the story about her “rainbow tribe” of adopted children, her work for the French Resistance for which she received several medals, and discussion of the discrimination that Josephine experienced as a black woman in America before she left for Paris. For more details about her life, see my article, Josephine Baker: bisexual icon or pick up the biography Josephine: The Hungry Heart by her unofficially adopted son Jean-Claude Baker and Chris Chase.
I recommend seeing the play, if you have a chance, even without the bisexuality, because it’s a beautiful theater piece about an amazing woman who lived an extraordinary life.
The Sensational Josephine Baker runs through Oct 3, presented by Emerging Artists Theater, playing at TADA! Theater 15 W. 28 St., 2nd floor. Tickets1-800-838-3006