Tymisha Harris, who wowed IndyFringe Theatre Festival audiences this past August, once again commanded the stage in her solo depiction of iconic superstar Josephine Baker in “Josephine, a burlesque cabaret dream play” Friday at IndyFringe Basile Theatre. The show was created by Harris, Michael Marinaccio and Tod Kimbro and presented as a full-length production this time around. It is one of seven shows included in the 9th Annual IndyFringe DivaFest, which spotlights the work of female playwrights. There are two more performances of Josephine, Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday at 12:30 p.m.
“Josephine” centers on the life of entertainer, activist and French spy Josephine Baker. The success of her early career was largely the result of her acceptance in her adoptive country France, where she was beloved as a dancer. Variously known as “The Creole Goddess, “Bronze Venus” and “Black Pearl,” Baker was the first African American to become a world-renowned entertainer. A star of the Parisian cabaret music hall Folies Bergère, her costume, consisting of nothing but bananas, became associated with her image and symbolic of the 20s Jazz Age. Acknowledged as the most famous woman in Paris, Baker, who was bi-sexual, was celebrated by intellectuals and artists. Born in St. Louis in 1907, Baker eventually became a French citizen, and went on to adopt 12 children of different nationalities with her fifth husband. Later in her life, she became prominent in the American Civil Rights Movement. She died in 1975.
Wearing a finger wave-styled wig, Harris changed into an array of beautiful period-accurate costumes, some more brief than others, as she narrated Baker’s life story in first person, during the one hour and 20 minute piece sans intermission. Peppered throughout were songs associated with Baker, as well as popular songs of the era. They included “Blue Skies,” “Banana Dance,” “Minnie the Moocher,” “Don’t Touch Me Tomato,” and “La Vie en Rose.”
Alternately sultry, coquettish, sassy, sensual and vulnerable, Harris magnificently captured Baker’s essence. Existing film of Baker, as well as reviews of her performances, confirm that Baker’s voice was not her greatest strength, but Harris’s voice enthralled in two show highlights. One was “Strange Fruit,” a powerful lament about lynching and Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” which was sung during a scene in which Baker appears in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Harris’s multi-dimensional performance did more than justice to one of the entertainment world’s brightest and most fascinating stars. She and her colleagues have created a piece about a fearless trailblazer who lived a life that shattered notions of race, gender and sexual orientation that, unfortunately, still separate and divide people. While delivering some very serious messages, “Josephine,” featuring the rare talent of a gifted performer, also happens to be some of the most captivating entertainment I have seen this season. My hope for Harris and her co-creators is that they find a wider audience for this moving work that deserves exposure.
For tickets and information about “Josephine, a burlesque cabaret dream play,” call (317) 522-8099 or visit indyfringe.org.