Josephine and I - review
Bush Theatre

Published: Sunday, July 20, 2013 0:16 AM | Review by: Gillian Fisher | Afridiziak Star Rating:
Cush Jumbo, Josephine and I © Simon Kane Cush Jumbo, Josephine and I © Simon Kane

In the golden age of Vaudeville Josephine Baker was the black pearl lighting up the Paris stage. Muse to Picasso, spy for the French resistance and veteran of the civil rights movement, Baker’s influence extended far beyond the footlights. In her electrifying one woman show Cush Jumbo animatedly tells the star’s story. Nimbly switching from key events in Baker’s life to present day London, Jumbo relates Baker’s onerous rise to fame with the challenges faced by a young actress in 2013. Two women, born on two continents almost a century apart; limited by the conventions of class, gender and colour. Josephine and I shows how one person with a zest for life and determination to succeed can change the social landscape of the next generation. It also shows that there is still much work to be done.


Jumbo’s energetic and innovative show is thoroughly engrossing due to her brilliant writing and her exceptional performance. With subtle social commentary and great music Josephine and I celebrates a woman whose praises should forever be sung

Cush Jumbo’s debut play is a dynamic and expository triumph of live performance. Stunningly physical, Jumbo depicts Baker’s life through chorus line dance routines and the star’s famous comedy capers. Spanning 68 years, Jumbo marks the passage of time through the evolving song and dance numbers, backed up by the tinkling tones of pianist Joseph Atkins. A phenomenal dancer; the actress performs the Charleston, Lindy Hop, and swing routines with flair. The playwright also has a fantastic voice which she puts to excellent use in classic show tunes such as ‘Wild about Harry’ and ‘How you Gonna Keep ’em.’ What makes this one woman show so unique is Jumbo’s combination of narrative and performance. Baker’s story is related in a first person monologue which she delivers during her dance acts. Direction by Phyllida Lloyd is inventive and alert. This is particularly noticeable in the seamlessly orchestrated segues into present day.


The inclusion of the second character is genius. It is a credit to Jumbo’s skill as an actress that the role appears thoroughly spontaneous and unscripted. Our modern girl is the world’s biggest Josephine Baker fan and is armed with a scrap book and vintage music scripts. The character is particularly accessible; desperate for guidance she channels Baker though a battered Tiny Tears doll in a grass skirt. Despite being born in 1980s Sydenham, our actress frequently faces the same obstacles as her heroine; most notably the inability to be successful in her own country. As a black woman, Baker never achieved universal acceptance or notoriety in her native America. The reality of segregation meant she had to enter hotels through the back door despite being the most famous woman in France. Our modern actress is waiting for the call from New York which will propel her to a status unavailable in British theatre. Artistic integrity, nudity clauses and the eternal choice between career and family are as pervasive to our actress as they were to Baker. ‘Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.’


Cush Jumbo, Josephine and I © Simon Kane Cush Jumbo, Josephine and I © Simon Kane

I started the evening with little knowledge of Josephine Baker beyond the image of her posing cheekily in a banana skirt. I ended it feeling enlightened and inspired by the astounding achievements of a showtime veteran. Jumbo’s energetic and innovative show is thoroughly engrossing due to her brilliant writing and her exceptional performance. With subtle social commentary and great music Josephine and I celebrates a woman whose praises should forever be sung.



Info: Josephine and I is at the Bush Theatre until August 17, 2013



Related links

Cush Jumbo – interview
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