Chicago Theatre Review
A Jewel of a Show
Black Pearl: A Tribute to Josephine Baker – Black Ensemble Theatre
Imagine if you could step back in time in order to marvel and enjoy the rise to fame of African American singer/entertainer, Josephine Baker. Thanks to a tightly-constructed script, written and superbly directed by BET Associate Director Daryl Brooks, and choreographed with authenticity by the talented Rueben Echoles, audiences will be able to share in Miss Baker’s journey to stardom. It’s a voyage tinged with pain and heartbreak, but also generously laced with wonderful music and joyous dancing, and a trip worth taking.
Josephine Baker was born to Vaudevillian song-and-dance team, Carrie McDonald and Eddie Carson in 1906 St. Louis, where she was named Freda Josephine McDonald. With dreams of following in her parents’ footsteps as a dancer, Freda changed her name to more provocative “Josephine.” However, it would be a while before her ambitions would be fulfilled. She was hired out by her mother to an abusive white family, who treated the young girl worse than their family dogs. Eventually Freda ran away and joined a Vaudevillian dance troupe, called the Dixie Steppers. She was eventually taken from the chorus and promoted to the star and choreographer because of her spirited, innovative dance moves. Josephine traveled with the troupe to New York City during the Harlem Renaissance, where she performed at clubs and in revues, winning a role in the famous all-black musical, “Shuffle Along.”
At only 19, the energetic singer/dancer was spotted by a producer who took Josephine to Paris, where she performed in the “La Revue Negre.” She took the entertainment world by storm with her erotic, nearly nude dancing. She toured Europe in this review, finally returning to Paris in the famous Folies Bergere. There she made headlines dancing only in a skirt made of bananas, which is modestly recreated in this highly entertaining and informational production.
The two-hour musical moves episodically through the highlights of this groundbreaking performer’s life. Josephine Baker continued to star in musical revues, was featured in several films and was married four times, with varying success. The performer eventually took the surname “Baker” from her short marriage to her favorite husband, Willie Baker. She was repeatedly lured back to the United States by generous paychecks, only to discover that the treatment of African Americans hadn’t changed over the decades.
Segregation was everywhere, even in the theatre, with black audiences forced to sit in the balcony while white theatergoers were treated to closer seats in the orchestra. The bathrooms and even the drinking fountains were separate. Miss Baker became infuriated by this lack of Civil Rights for African Americans, and she returned to Paris, where she became a French citizen. There she bought and lived in a luxurious, palatial chateau, planning to live out her life caring for her large, adopted family of international children. Hard times eventually befell Josephine Baker and she returned successfully to show business. Following her rave-reviewed performance, Miss Baker died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 68. But this production doesn’t wallow in the drama. It’s a celebration of a life well-lived and illustrates how we should all live life to the fullest, enjoying every moment, like Miss Baker.
Robert Reddrick’s superb musical direction, including conducting his talented seven-member band, peppers this revue with familiar songs like “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home,” “Blue Skies,” “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” “Begin the Beguine,” and the lovely “La Vie En Rose.” Mr. Echoles’ spirited choreography includes lively numbers like “Charleston,” “Doctor Jazz” and the “Maple Leaf Rag.” Aaron Quick’s projections enhance Denise Karczewski’s sparse and fluid scenic design. The scrumptious period costumes created by Alexia Rutherford are, as always at BET, the icing on the cake.
The energetic ensemble, who play all the supporting roles and keep the songs and dances in top form, are sensational. Familiar faces like the lovely, talented Rhonda Preston, playing both a breathtaking Bessie Smith and Josephine’s mother; Kylah Frye, who portrays Carrie during her younger years; and the always show-stopping Kyle Smith, as her mentor, Joe, are true standouts. But this musical belongs to two ladies. Both Aeriel Williams, as a stunning younger Josephine, and Jean Ruffin, as Josephine in her later years, the charismatic narrator of the piece. Together these two ladies are deservedly the ovation-producing stars of this show and the reason to make the trip up Clark Street to enjoy this magnificent musical. It’s a piece of history that will delight and inspire audiences of all ages.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented May 6-June 18 by Black Ensemble Theatre, 4450 N. Clark St., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling them at 773-769-4451 or by going to www.blackensemble.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.