|Josephine Baker Comes to Life at the Bush Theatre
Penny Flood is thrilled by Cush Jumbo’s remarkable and exciting play
Josephine And I is a highly original one-woman show. Written by and starring Cush Jumbo, it is surprising, funny, shocking, thought-provoking, heart-breaking and heart-warming.
Jumbo starts as the (at least partly autobiographical) young actress ‘I’ of the title, who chats about her own experiences, interwoven with Jumbo playing out the extraordinary life of the black singer and dancer Josephine Baker. Having worshipped Josephine since she was a child, Jumbo slips easily between two roles, including the key highlights of Josephine’s career.
The pace and roller-coaster of emotions can leave you breathless – until we see ‘I’ growing more anxious about her own life and looking for inspiration from Josephine who is getting older and trying to make a comeback.
This leads into Jumbo acting out one of Josephine’s French cabaret performances in full costume, which moves into to a powerful, emotional rendition of Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A Changing, divesting herself of feathers and glitter as she goes along until it’s just her on stage in a simple black dress, singing from the heart. And getting a well deserved tearful, standing ovation.
Jumbo has tremendous stage presence and carries off her 90 minutes on stage with infectious enthusiasm, warmth, humour, and charm. This moves to a a new level her already enviable acting track record, although she is still only 27.
Her major theatrical roles include playing Marc Anthony at the Donmar in the all female production of Julius Caesar, where she won an Olivier Award for Best Supporting Actress Olivier Award, and on television she starred as Lois in Torchwood as well as in BBC Three’s Lip Service.
Josephine Baker was a remarkable woman. Married at 13 and pregnant at 14 she went from St Louis to New York and on to Paris, where she took Europe by storm while still a teenager. But on return to America in the 1930s she found nothing had changed – she had to use the back door to go in and out of a hotel where she had booked the penthouse suite.
Much more than a singer and dancer, she went on to join the French Resistance and became a civil rights campaigner. In 1963, she was the only female speaker at the historic ‘March on Washington’ at the side of Martin Luther King, while wearing her Free French uniform. She also went on to adopt 12 children from all over the world to create her ‘rainbow family’.
Josephine Baker is a woman who deserves so much respect but has not been given much prominence recently. So I’m grateful to Jumbo for bringing her to my notice, and making a wider audience realise not just what Josephine achieved, but also that the prejudices she suffered from are still being felt by many today.
Photo- Max Narula
The Bush has been done up like a cabaret theatre for this, with the audience seated around candle lit tables and on red plush banquettes with heavy red velvet curtains at the back of the stage. Jumbo’s main prop is a Tiny Tears doll (blackened to look like Josephine) to whom she chats to from time to time. Clever lighting adds depth, with silhouettes standing in for additional characters or for stylised depictions of Josephine dancing.
Jumbo is accompanied by throughout foot-tapping, honky-tonk piano music from the brilliant and tireless Joseph Atkins.
Skilled direction is in the hands of Phyllida Lloyd, whose long list of credits include the Julius Caesar in which Jumbo starred, as well as, The Pride of Miss Jean Brodie for the National Theatre and Mamma Mia for stage and screen.
Under Madan Younis’ guidance, The Bush has come up with some ground breaking stuff but for me, this is the best by far. It’s on for another month, so if you want to see it, grab a bottle of iced water and get to The Bush before it moves to the West End, which it surely must if there’s any justice in the theatre world.
July 19, 2013