Josephine is billed as ‘a burlesque cabaret dream play’, which neatly sums it up. Tymisha Harris is Josephine Baker, dramatising key moments from the 20th century entertainer’s life. It’s a fascinating story: Born in the United States, Josephine rose to fame in Paris in the 1920s. She went on to be a leading figure in the American Civil Rights Movement.
Harris narrates Baker’s life story through dialogue with the audience, song and dance. Harris is not only the sole performer in the show, she is also its co-creator, costume designer and choreographer. The costumes are fabulous, particularly Baker’s famous banana costume. It’s a cheekily risqué performance, with some playful nudity that might cause a slight blush for those on the front row.
The songs Harris sings aren’t particularly memorable, and there are difficulties inherent in a solo musical. Costume changes, for instance, take a bit of time, which slows down the play’s momentum. Some use is made of voice recordings as stand-ins for other characters, but for the most part, attention is focused on Harris as Josephine. Harris convincingly conveys Josephine’s coquettishness, as well as her vanity and vulnerability.
Josephine is an exuberant celebration of black womanhood, accompanied by the wild beats of the Jazz Age. Audience members who don’t know much about Josephine’s life will learn a lot: the fact that she was a spy in the French Resistance during World War Two, for instance. Josephine’s story does not simply belong in the history books, it remains deeply relevant today, emphasising as it does the ties between the United States and Europe. Josephine also explores America’s dark past (and arguably present) of racism. Harris delivers a fun, energetic performance that deserves to be seen by young and old (but not too young).