From hedonism to altruism, ‘Josephine’ tells the story of Baker’s remarkable life

josephine baker review

JACK GRASSA

Tymisha Harris starred as Josephine Baker in “Josephine,” which was presented outdoors at the Morris Museum in Morris Township, Sept. 17-18.

I’ll always remember where I was when I learned that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died. I was in the audience of “Josephine,” outdoors at the Morris Museum in Morris Township. Tymisha Harris, who starred in the one-woman show, had just finished taking her bows when Brett Wellman Messenger, curatorial director of the museum’s Live Arts series, spoke briefly, telling us what had happened and asking for a moment of silence. People could be heard crying.

What I didn’t know, before I saw “Josephine,” was how fitting it would be to be at this place, at this time.

Though best known as an entertainer, and an often scantily clad one at that, Baker worked undercover as part of the resistance during World War II, became active in the Civil Rights Movement in the ’50s and ’60s, and adopted 12 children. “Josephine” tells the story of her whole life — her journey from hedonism to altruism, as Tod Kimbro’s book for the play tells us — and climaxes with a stirring version of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” a song that Baker, who died in 1975 at the age of 68, did in fact sing during her life (see video below). In a nod to current political issues, the line “Don’t block up the hall” is changed, here, to “Don’t put up your walls.”

The Morris Museum has been presenting cultural events — mostly classical and jazz concerts — on the elevated parking deck behind the museum, since July. Attendees bring their own chairs and are given an area to sit in, safely distanced from others. “Josephine” was presented there for two nights, Sept. 17-18; I attended the second show.

It was a chilly night, which made it a particularly challenging evening for Harris, who re-enacted Baker’s burlesque routines in authentic-looking costumes. But she never let her discomfort show — until taking her bows, that is, when she cried out for a sweatshirt.

JACK GRASSA

Tymisha Harris in “Josephine.”

The play starts in Baker’s original hometown, St. Louis, where she grows up poor and is traumatized by race riots; she remembers running for her life. “Part of me feels like I never really stopped,” she says.

But she discovers she can make money doing something she loves: dancing. She marries twice before turning 16; moves to New York, where she finds work in an African-American Broadway show; and gets an offer to perform in Paris. She takes it, not knowing that the job calls for her to be nearly naked onstage. She accepts this information with a shrug.

She becomes a sensation in Paris. And though she adores Paris, where racism does not threaten her as it does in the United States, she lets us know that is it still there, more subtly, and that she achieves her success by “personifying the savage” onstage, and in film.

Singing, dancing and acting, she becomes the most famous woman in France. Coming back to the United States to star in “The Ziegfeld Follies” in New York, she flops, and is treated cruelly by the press (the New York Times calls her a “Negro wench”).

She returns to Europe, where she finds she can be of use smuggling messages to Allied forces during World War II. Spies assume, correctly, that no one would dare search such an imposing diva. “Just imagine, the only person they don’t strip search is the exhibitionist,” Baker says.

She interacts with an astonishing array of 20th century notables at various points of the play: Picasso, Hemingway, Grace Kelly … Nazi leader Hermann Göring visits her backstage and makes her skin crawl … columnist Walter Winchell, a one-time supporter, later causes major problems for her by accusing her of being a communist … she has an affair with the artist Frida Kahlo that, of all of the affairs and marriages mentioned in the play, seems the deepest and most passionate … Martin Luther King Jr. personally invites her to speak at the 1963 March on Washington, which she does.

Harris sings well — taking care to falter, vocally, when Baker is young, to show us how she is able to grow over the years. She also does a good job at making her character different at every stage of her life — eager and cheerful as a girl and young woman, more doubt-filled, sensitive and philosophical as she gets older — while still retaining a bit of that youthful energy. This is the kind of role where a certain amount of charisma is indispensable, and Harris has it.

Book writer Kimbro (who also provides musical direction, with Michael Marinaccio stage directing and producing) could have spent more time delving into Baker’s inner life. At times, Baker seems to just skip, blithely, from one fascinating chapter of her life to the next — or from one husband or lover to the next husband or lover — without much reflection.

Nicole Burgio in “xoxo moongirl.”

But when you’re dealing with a person with as dazzling a resume as Baker, it’s understandable why a writer would take this approach.

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Next up in the Live Arts series at the Morris Museum is “xoxo moongirl,” produced by Almanac Dance Circus Theatre and starring Nicole Burgio, Sept. 24-25 at 7 p.m.

This is another one-woman show, though it looks like it is more experimental in nature. According to the theater’s website, it “blends physical theatre, live music, world-class circus, and aerial performance in a hilarious, heart-wrenching and breathtaking story of one woman processing a family life riddled with domestic abuse.”

For more on “xoxo moongirl” and other Morris Museum outdoor events, visit morrismuseum.org/outdoor-events.

For more on “Josephine,” visit josephinetheplay.com.

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