Theatre in Review

Saturday, 20 May 2017 12:45

How Josephine Baker Earned Superstardom to Become the Black Pearl Featured

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Black Pearl: The Story of Josephine Baker features Joan Ruffin as Older Josephine, Aerial Williams as Younger Josephine Black Pearl: The Story of Josephine Baker features Joan Ruffin as Older Josephine, Aerial Williams as Younger Josephine Michael Courier

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.

Last modified on Saturday, 20 May 2017 13:18
Bill Esler

A native Chicagoan, Bill Esler has been a printer and publisher for more than 35 years. He has B.A. in English with a concentration in writing from Knox College.  

 

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