If you missed Thursday night’s sold out opening of “Josephine’ you still have five more chances to see it. But you better purchase your tickets sooner than later because word of mouth indicates that it may well turn out to be a hit at Fringe`17. Fortunately, I’ll have the opportunity to see the show Saturday, so look for my review here “On The Aisle,” along with others I plan to attend during the remainder of the festival which runs through Aug. 27.
“Josephine, A burlesque cabaret dream play,” presented by Théâtre d’amour élastique , was created by Tymisha Harris, Michael Marinaccio and Tod Kimbro, is based on the life Josephine Baker. Starring Harris and directed by Marinaccio, “Josephine” combines cabaret, theatre and dance to tell the story of the iconic Baker, the first African-American international superstar and one of the most remarkable figures of the 20th Century.
Baker, who was born in St. Louis in 1906 achieved only modest success in the United States, but became famous after relocating 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 gay relationships, and performed in drag as a man. France, a country she loved and that adored her in return allowed her to live freely without the racism she experience in America, but Baker never stopped yearning for acceptance in the U.S.
I spoke recently with Harris by phone from Orlando where she was packing for her trip to Indy for Fringe17. Below is a transcript of the interview in which she discusses the play that won the Best of Fest award and won her the Outstanding Solo Performance at the 2016 San Diego Fringe.
Have you played Indy before?
I believe so. I was there with “Rock of Ages” in 2011. It’s kind of a blur.
How long have you been playing Josephine?
We debuted the show in San Diego in 2016 and since then I think we have done 28 shows.
Has it been presented at fringe festivals, primarily?
Yes. After the San Diego Fringe, we took it back to Orlando, then to Winnipeg and now Indy so yes, only Fringe Festivals.
Indy fringe shows are 50 minutes long. Have you done lengthier versions elsewhere?
Yes. We are shrinking it down for Indy. Normally it is about 70 minutes long.
What do you like about playing the role of Josephine.
Oh gosh, I love telling the story of her life, her history and how extraordinary she was. It gives me a chance to do three different things. It’s cabaret style, I get to dance a little bit and I get to sing. It I s a wonderful part that was created for me. I have loved her story since I discovered it at the age of 17 so it was just a matter of time before I played her.
I see that you are one of the co-creators. What part did you play?
Dramaturgy and costume designer. It was a hands-on effort between the three of us. We all had input and Todd wrote the wonderful book.
Have you found that public is familiar with Josephine?
Yes and no. People may know about her but they don’t that she helped in the French resistance or that she had 12 adopted children, how and where she originated. Some people think she was from France and some of the facts are lost on some people and others. A lot of the Canadians didn’t know anything about her. A lot of the songs in the show really drive it home and make them feel comfortable. A lot of people told me after seeing the show they did went online to learn about here. on her so hopefully has a lot of hits on the internet.
Tell me about the songs in the show?
Josephine recorded most them which I sing and some we took liberties with. One of the songs is “Minnie The Moocher.” She could have sung that because of the period but there is no recording of her doing it but it fits right into the show. The songs are mostly well known, some are original Josephine Baker songs and some have been altered slightly in tempo and we have done our own arrangements.
How did you research for the role?
I was given a couple of books about her. One was written by one of her adopted sons, Jean Claude which included pictures that mesmerized mem. I watched any movie clip I could get my hands on. I studied pictures of her and read history books. Many of my friends would tell me about his photo or that photo of her. When we were creating it, we went back and forth learning about her and just kept adding to it and molding and shaping our portrayal of her.
Have you performed the show for many African Americans?
Certainly not in droves. Winnipeg has a small community and we reached out there wasn’t much of a response. In Orlando, we had a great turn out but that is our home turf.
Have other shows or films about Josephine been produced that you are aware of?
There was a full cast musical that was workshopped in Sarasota, Florida a few years ago, starring Deborah Cox but I don’t think they ever made it past that and stalled on its way to Broadway. There have been other one women shows and other pieces but nothing substantial. The most substantial was an HBO movie but very early and focused on only one portion of her life.
Any interest in expanding the show and going further with it?
Definitely. There is a possibility that we will expand it next year to 80 minutes and add a band. And it doesn’t have to stay under the Fringe umbrella.
What is it about Josephine Baker that is most compelling to you?
She was willing to be the first to explore a whole other country. She had the guts and the know-how and self-trust to try a new place and be a free spirit and know that she was equal to others. She had the courage to move to France and the French were open to it. She embraced life. The first thing I saw of her was the HBO movie and then I started reading about her in the encyclopedia but that’s when it struck me that she was a trailblazer and was fearless.
Any similarities between her life and your own?
Oh, my. I might be considered an exhibitionist. (laughs) showing off a little skin.
Is there nudity in the show?
I am topless but I wear pasties.
When she did her famous Banana Dance did she cover herself with bananas?
She had a skirt of about 12 bananas and when she came to the states, more were added and a bra.
What can Fringe audiences expect from your show?
They can expect singing and dancing and a history lesson. A little burlesque. It’s a wonderful experience that uplifts the heart and unites us all.
“Josephine” is intended for adult audiences. For tickets visit indyfringe.org. The performances will be presented at Phoenix Theatre Mainstage, on the following dates: Saturday, Aug. 19, 10:30 p.m., Sunday, Aug. 20, 3 p.m., Monday, Aug. 21, 6 p.m. Friday, Aug. 25, 9 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 26, 7:30 p.m.