Josephine Baker, she of the banana skirts and cheetah on a leash, was also a mother. A precursor to Angelina Jolie, Baker adopted a dozen children from around the globe. The legendary entertainer raised the “Rainbow Tribe,” as she called them, in her chateau in France.
Fittingly, Black Ensemble Theater’s tribute to Baker, BLACK PEARL, opened on Mother’s Day. For those in the audience (like me) who knew little of Baker’ biography, it was an education. Written and directed by Daryl D. Brooks, the show celebrates the life of an African-American woman who left racist America behind in the 1920s for fame and fortune in France.
Black Ensemble Theater’s bio-musical genre
Hewing to its bio-musical genre, Black Ensemble Theater blends musical numbers with linear dramatic scenes. The result is an entertaining timeline about the singer-dancer who famously refused to accept the segregation that controlled black performers, whether they played the Jim Crow South or cosmopolitan New York City.
BLACK PEARL follows the thread of racism with Aeriel Williams as a lissome Younger Josephine while Joan Ruffin, as the mature Older Josephine, narrates. As a fifteen-year-old, Baker scores a place in the cast of SHUFFLE ALONG, Broadway’s first all-black show. Before she leaves on tour in 1923, her mother Carrie (Kylah Frye) issues a fateful warning: “This is America. To them, you are just another nigger chorus girl.” Sadly, this mother spoke the truth.
BLACK PEARL’s cast smooths over rough patches
To find equal opportunity as a gifted performer, Baker has to cross the Atlantic. She takes Paris by storm – but not till she reluctantly agrees to go onstage wearing a good deal less than she did Stateside. Director Brooks beautifully stages the musical number in which Baker reveals the stunning black skin that experienced so much discrimination in the U.S. and leads to triumph throughout Europe.
Sensational as her performances were, Baker was a formidable personality from her early to later years. She aided the French Resistance in World War II, participated in the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. and created a multi-cultural family in her 40s and 50s. BLACK PEARL covers this ground briskly, its script delivered by a cast that manages to smooth over some rough storytelling patches.
Two Bakers, two vibes
Williams as the Younger Josephine sings and dances exquisitely, plus expresses her character’s vulnerability. When Ruffin takes over as Older Josephine during Act II, it’s an abrupt transition. That Ruffin is somewhat strident compared to Williams makes the character less sympathetic, although Baker’s hardening over time is certainly plausible.
Besides outstanding voices and slick dance moves, the show offers wonderful costumes by Alexia Rutherford that define and enliven each historical period. It’s just plain fun to watch the cast emerge with yet another set of new duds for each number. The orchestra, meanwhile, tends to overwhelm the singers. Well-trained and powerful, the singers nonetheless labor at times to make themselves heard.
Overall, BLACK PEARL succeeds in illuminating the full scope of Josephine Baker’s storied life -- its harsh beginning, glorious peak and surprisingly maternal ending.
Now through June 18
Thursdays at 7:30 PM
Fridays at 8:00 pm
Saturdays at 3:00 & 8:00 PM
Sundays at 3:00 PM
Black Ensemble Theater
4450 N. Clark St.
About the Author
Susan Lieberman is a playwright, journalist and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. Her short play Pam's Key opens in NYC in June and her Jeff-winning play Arrangement for Two Violaswill be published by Chicago Dramaworks later this year.