Though there is only one woman on stage, there are two people about whom we know an awful lot by the end of this show. The first is the Josephine of the title — Josephine Baker that is, the African American dancing dynamo who became a ground-breaking sex symbol on stage and screen. The second is actor and author of this show Cush Jumbo. For Baker’s story is interweaved with the life of the girl telling it.
I admit to a prejudice against one-person shows. After seeing a zillion of them, the impression I’ve been left with is that one person is unlikely to sustain an evening as entertainingly as four or five.
Of course, you end up heartily applauding shows such as Simon Callow’s and the brilliance with which an actor depicts no less than 50 characters. But, in the end, it is the actor’s stamina we often end up acclaiming. Or the actor’s and our own.
But with Jumbo’s gripping one-hander — her debut as a writer — there is barely a longueur as she flips between two personas.
There is the London-born rising young actress and the person with whom she became obsessed as a child — the St Louis-born chancer and dancer who muscled her way on to Broadway as the darkest-skinned member of a chorus line.
This was in the early 1920s when Broadway’s chorus lines operated a “shade system”. There were “light girls”, “mulattoes”, “roons”, “quadroons” and finally “octoroons” — one-eighth black — which was considered excellent.
“I was at least two shades too dark,” says Jumbo’s Josephine. “And that’s how I knew I was good.”
Jumbo continually switches from the charismatic stage version of herself to Josephine, moving with ease from her own London brogue to Baker’s southern drawl.
Director Phyllida Lloyd aids the sudden transitions with subtle back projections of grainy photographs from Baker’s past — the men in her life or the sea of faces at the Booker Theatre, the St Louis playhouse for “coloured” people.
Baker’s story is partly about felling racist barriers. Sure, by today’s standards, the dance she did for Paris audiences while wearing a banana skirt might not have been a significant step in race relations.
But that’s not all she did in Paris and the French treated her with far more respect than her fellow Americans.
Even while Baker starred on Broadway, New York’s posh hotels still made her enter by the back door.
It’s a fight that still has to be fought. After reading out one of the many racist reviews of Baker’s New York show, we get a modern day response from one of Jumbo’s. It was published — presumably only briefly — in a British newspaper’s online comments page about Jumbo’s terrific performance in Lloyd’s all-woman production of Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse last year. It could have been written by a member of the St Louis Klu Klux Klan.
Jumbo does this without suggesting that her battles against racism are equivalent to Baker’s. Rather, she is simply linking a modern life with that of a sometimes forgotten star. In that sense Josephine and I works as a brilliant history lesson.
And, on another level, it makes for one of the most engaging and enthralling one-person-shows I’ve seen.