This story is featured in the July issue of 519 Magazine, which can be picked up at more than 200 locations in Windsor-Essex, Chatham, Leamington, Sarnia and London.
Windsor’s Olde Walkerville Theatre will be transformed into a vintage burlesque house when the touring theatrical production of Josephine, A Burlesque Cabaret Dream Play, comes to the city for four shows from June 28 to 30.
Led by dancer/actress Tymisha Harris, Josephine combines cabaret, theatre and dance to tell the story of the iconic Josephine Baker, the first African-American international superstar and one of the most remarkable figures of the 20th Century.
Harris is known for her work as Assistant Choreographer and dancer with pop group NSYNC, from the movie series Bring It On and the national touring version of Rock of Ages. She quickly fell in love with the role of Josephine.
“Josephine was in love with being in love and it’s not a bad thing,” Harris told 519 Magazine. “She adopted 12 kids and was always trying to get back to America. She was looked down upon, spat upon, called a Communist, her Visa revoked and all these different things, but when the civil rights movement actually did get started, Martin Luther King called and asked her to be a part of it. She was banned at the beginning, called this and that, but they brought her back because it was the right thing to do. I think we all need to hear her story.”
Born in St. Louis in 1906, Josephine Baker achieved only moderate success in the United States, but became an international superstar after moving to France in the early 20’s. She starred alongside white romantic leading men in films in the 30’s, had multiple interracial marriages and homosexual relationships, and performed in men’s clothing before the term “drag” existed in the lexicon. Her adopted country of France gave her the opportunity to live freely without the racial oppression of her home nation, though she never stopped yearning for acceptance in America.
“She was African-American and she was the first international superstar,” Harris explained. She rose to the same hype that Beyonce has now with three films starring a black woman – that’s three films right next to very prominent French actors. I admire that fearlessness and her guts to go for it. I think her story is amazing because it shows us that if we continue on the same path, we might not be headed in that right direction or we’re not going to change our direction. Hopefully the story opens people’s hearts, minds and thoughts about what they are saying about somebody.”
The play is set in a kind of imaginary boudoir of Baker and she casually and intimately discusses her life with the audience. She recalls growing up in St. Louis, escaping to Paris where she was embraced, dealing with racism and failure here in the United States, and ultimately returning home to acclaim and a new role as a civil rights activist.
The play also reveals that she was a spy for the French resistance and had information hidden in her undergarments. Harris’ performance captures Baker’s unique blend of sass, sweetness, sexiness and humor.
Along with its strong anti-racism sentiment, the show contains adult content and nudity. Josephine shattered stereotypes of race, gender roles and sexuality in this intimate, charming and haunting cabaret.
“She loved herself, she loved her body and she wasn’t afraid to show it off,” Harris added. “She had beautiful skin and she put it out there for everyone to see. We don’t have to be prudes at this show – she certainly wasn’t. We’re not born clothed. But anybody can look for themselves whether they’re comfortable or not and maybe this will start to change body images of what people see. I figured out I could make my light shine in my own skin whether I’m fully clothed or naked. I’ve been in and out of costumes before and I’m dancing in just bananas in this show, so either way that power has transcended through those costumes or lack of costumes.”
Josephine’s story is beyond that of just a dancer or actress, she was also a very sexually active woman. She was known for her escapes with people of all races, colours, creeds and sexual orientations.
“Oh yeah, she was into all sorts of things,” Harris said. “She was very sexually fluid. That was also just part of life in the Roaring 20s. She embodied the time and ran with it. I think that’s what enhances some of her sexuality on stage – she was so sexually open and free and powerful that she was not hindered by anyone else. She didn’t bother to worry about anybody else and about being a prude. That created a nice little grey area. It wasn’t just on the stage, she actually lived it.”
Taking on such an intimate role can be difficult for many and Harris says there are times she’s no different.
“I definitely call for her to come and I ask ‘How did you do this Josephine?’, and she answers ‘like this’ and I’m like Okay. I do try my best to make folks understand her right to do the things she did and the grace that she had when she performed. She had an unforgettable smile with her eyes and when she smiled, you felt comforted by it.”
Josephine, A Burlesque Cabaret Dream Play began as a work in progress in 2016 and eventually turned into a North American touring show in 2017, performing at theatres and Fringe festivals around the continent. The show was created by Harris and co-creator/director Michael Marinaccio, based on a book and music by Tod Kimbro.
Josephine runs at the Olde Walkerville Theatre from June 28 to 30. Tickets are available for $35-40 at www.oldewalkervilletheatre.com.