In September 2020, the Morris Museum mounted an outdoor production of “Josephine: A Burlesque Cabaret Dream Play,” starring Tymisha Harris as singer, dancer, actress and activist Josephine Baker. And this weekend — producing an indoor play for the first time since the start of the pandemic, at its Bickford Theatre — the museum is once again presenting Harris as Baker, in “Josie & Grace: A Mostly Historical Cabaret Dream Play.”
This isn’t a prequel or a sequel. “Josie & Grace” offers a complementary view of Harris, focusing on her longtime friendship with Grace Kelly, the Academy Award-winning actress who married Prince Rainier III of Monaco and became a princess. While the first play told the story of Baker’s entire life, from childhood, this one shows her only from the early ’50s (when she was already an established star) through the end of her life in the mid-’70s. But like that play, it gives a sense of her struggles and triumphs, and showcases Harris’ ability to sing in a commanding, Baker-esque style.
Kelly is first shown as an aspiring, little-known actress, attending a performance by Baker in New York. She is really just a star-struck fan. But after Baker storms out of her after-show dinner at the Stork Club, infuriated because of the poor service she receives as a black woman, Kelly leaves, too, and the two strike up a friendship.
Harris said after the show — onstage, after taking her bows — that the show is still in its workshop phase. Its biggest current flaw, I think, has to do with the next part of the show. Baker and Kelly, in their next scene together, are shown as fast friends. Beyond mentioning that Kelly had become successful as an actress (and had had affairs with some of her leading men), the play doesn’t really show how they got from Phase 1 (Baker’s a star and Kelly, 23 years younger, is a show-business neophyte) to their warm, sisterly Phase 2.
In any event, the good vibes don’t last for long. The relationship is strained when Baker is not invited to Kelly’s royal wedding. They remain estranged for years, writing polite letters but not actually seeing each other.
But they do eventually reconcile, and Kelly explains that since Baker had been “branded” a communist by the press, Rainier couldn’t afford, politically, to invite her. Baker remains suspicious, though, that racism had something to do with it, and is angry at Kelly for not taking a stand.
Kelly notes that she is always sitting back while Baker is always charging forward, which seems about right; Kelly may be a real princess, but it’s Baker who seems like a queen. (On the other hand, Kelly has a bit of a rebellious streak, too, which helps to explain why she idolized Baker in the first place.)
Baker lets bygones stay bygones, though, and they remain friends. Kelly even provides financial support for Baker, who has developed a desperate need for it. Their bond remains strong for the rest of Baker’s life.
As in “Josephine: A Burlesque Cabaret Dream Play,” Harris exudes diva-like charisma as Baker. Joining her and Comeau in the cast is Stephen Lima, who is never seen but is heard as several characters, including Rainier, Alfred Hitchcock (who directed Kelly in three films) and Kelly’s father.
Songs include the anthemic “Non, je ne regrette rien” (“I Regret Nothing”); catchy 20th century gems such as “I’m Feeling Like a Million,” “I Can’t Get Started” and “True Love”; and Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’ ” (which Baker did, in fact, sing, and which was also featured in “Josephine: A Burlesque Cabaret Dream Play”).
Aradhana Tiwari directed, and Michael Marinaccio and Tod Kimbro (who worked on “Josephine: A Burlesque Cabaret Dream Play” as well) are credited with the concept, story and script. Kimbro also wrote the play’s two original songs.
In the show’s program, the creative team notes that not much is really known about the friendship between Baker and Kelly beyond that it was deep and long-lasting. To their credit, they have created a play about it that rings true, and certainly seems consistent with everything we know about Baker.
Remaining performances of “Josie & Grace: A Mostly Historical Cabaret Dream Play” are scheduled for 8 p.m. Nov. 6 and 2 p.m. Nov. 7 at the Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum in Morris Township. Visit morrismuseum.org.
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