Dance in Review

Josephine Baker leapt from the Harlem Renaissance via the Paris Folies Bergère to become a global phenomenon, the first black international superstar.

Consider this: Baker’s fame was so great in her day among African-Americans, that Coretta King immediately appealed to her to guide the U.S. Civil Rights Movement in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Born in 1906, Baker died in 1975 - yet she is vaguely remembered, if at all.

Black Pearl: A Tribute to Josephine Baker helps remedy that, ably recounting the trajectory of her stardom. Baker may have lived too big a life character to fit on any stage (she was style-setter, movie star, civil rights activist, even an agent for the French Resistance in World War II) but writer and director Daryl Brooks and the high-energy ensemble cast have gotten enough of the high and low points of her life to build a great show, with special emphasis on her rollicking dancing style.

Two women perform the role of Baker – Joan Ruffin as the Older Josephine largely plays narrator; Aerial Williams - a great dancer and with a lovely voice - is the Younger Josephine.

Baker really did it all – singing, dancing, movies. Arguably Baker was the first global personality, driving fashion trends (her hair style was widely copied), dispensing lifestyle advice in women’s magazines – think Gwyneth Paltrow, Kardashians, Oprah, with a touch of Grace Jones. Baker kept a pet cheetah, and later in life adopted a brood of children from different countries, housing them in the palatial chateau her wealth afforded.

She was first brought to Europe by the French under a government-sponsored cultural program, and became an overnight sensation during a period when France was colonizing Africa. By today’s standards some of her signature performance expressions might not be judged politically correct, but Baker’s artistic influences were segregated minstrel shows, where blacks performed in exaggerated black-face, and jazz-infused free-form dance was the norm.

Her hard-scrabble life of poverty and abuse growing up in St. Louis is captured well in Brook’s script, especially her awakening to music and dance as a teenaged girl. The choreography in Black Pearl (Baker was known by that name) mines Baker’s movies and the historical record to accurately portray contemporary dance styles. To the French, Baker was a genre-busting exotic, as she created a romanticized, imagined portrayal of African natives in their new colonies.

Her famous Banana Dance is carefully rendered on the Black Ensemble stage. Though Europe had its racial and cultural prejudices, it did not have Jim Crow laws like the U.S. – rules that barred Baker from staying at 36 hotels on a return U.S. tour celebrating her global stardom. Her mother had to sit in the balcony section for blacks. Baker renounced her U.S. citizenship and became a French citizen. But on her next U.S. tour she successfully set her contract to require venues to be integrated, and her mother sat in the front row at Carnegie Hall.

As she matured into a style icon, Baker evolved in to a chanteuse, and several of the songs are performed in French during Black Pearl. One show stopper, a transition right before intermission, has Williams’ young Josephine sing a love song to France, with Ruffin’s older Josephine repeating the lyrics in English. It is very affecting.

Like most Black Ensemble productions, the live music backing is excellent, able to swing through all the stylistic periods. The script is occasionally wooded in scenes from later years, but it makes all the points that matter – and keeps the focus on the performance art. Running through June 18, Black Pearl at Black Ensemble Theater is highly recommended.

Published in Theatre in Review

A dazzling high-energy jukebox musical with history and astonishing talent, Black Ensemble Theatre's “Men of Soul” is sure to be a smash-hit! Brimming with electrifying artistry, the show brings to mind another long-running Chicago musical favorite “Million Dollar Quartet”, which features an array of 1950’s icons. “Men of Soul” shares the delicious romp through iconic American music history, featuring stunning replications of some of our most beloved performers and songwriters through virtuosic performances and upbeat entertainment!

“Men of Soul” celebrates the passion and power of musicians who triumphed over personal and social struggles to achieve success through song. Featuring a hilarious, spot-on, rousing rendition of Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets”, an incredibly energetic performance by Kyle Smith as Prince with “Purple Rain”, and including singing so remarkably similar to the original artist Ray Charles that I thought “Georgia On My Mind” was lip-synced! Dancing as only James Brown can in “Sex Machine”, crooning “On the Wings of Love” and “A Whole New World”, and rocking away to Billy Joel’s “My Life” and a medley of Bill Withers favorites such as “Lean on Me” and the unforgettable “Ain’t No Sunshine”, makes “Men of Soul” a summer performance to enjoy and remember!

I was especially impressed by the director and writer of “Men of Soul”, Daryl D Brooks. Seamless transitions, exciting lighting displays that incorporated the entire audience, and impeccable casting and musical direction brings this hilarious, high energy show to the pinnacle of success! Associate Director of Black Ensemble Theater, I look forward to the entertainment Mr. Brooks will bring the Chicago community in the future!

“Men of Soul” is the perfect summer show to bring friends and family to see, playing all through the month of August! Tickets can be found at www.blackensemble.org or by calling (773) 769-4451, with discounts for students, seniors and groups. Valet parking available.

Tw@birunjibaby

Published in Theatre Reviews

 

 

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