At the Black Ensemble Theater (BET)
By Dan Zeff
Chicago—The Black Ensemble Theater’s series of portraits of African American music stars has been laudable in purpose but often inconsistent in achievement. However, periodically the BET has hit a theatrical home run, notably their stories of Howlin’ Wolf and Jackie Wilson. The list has now can be expanded with the world premiere of “Black Pearl: A Tribute to Josephine Baker.”
Baker was one of the western world’s superstars for decades in the early and mid 1900’s, but she hasn’t left much of a footprint in the history books. Her greatest fame came during her years in France rather than America. She made a couple of inconsequential movies in the 1930’s and not much of a record survives of her remarkable music hall performances. But in person she was a magnetic star, as well as a French war hero during World War II and a determined fighter for civil rights who marched with Martin Luther King in America.
Baker was a woman of many parts, a temperamental, strong willed, uniquely talented figure to capture in a musical. Baker had an exotic and erotic allure that enchanted live audiences, especially as a dancer. Her Banana Dance, performed mostly nude in Paris, was a show stopper. But she was an inimitable performer and even the many virtues of “Black Pearl” cannot be expected to do more than suggest what an exciting and complicated woman Baker was in real life.
Any successful show based about Baker has to begin with employing a singer-dancer-actress who can evoke, or at least approximate, the magnetism that intoxicated Europe and made the woman one of the highest paid performers in the world. To address this problem, the BET uses two actresses, one (Aeriel Williams) playing Josephine from her childhood to her great years, and another (Joan Ruffin) serving as the show’s narrator and assuming the Baker mantle for her final years.
Photo Credit: Michael Courier
Having satisfactorily resolved the crucial casting problem, the show has to come up with an effective storytelling plan that covers the key points in Baker’s life coherently. A faulty book is the sword on which many BET biographical profiles have fallen in the past. But Daryl Brooks has come up with an efficient book that takes Baker from the age of eight to her death, hitting the high spots in a literate, accessible manner. Brooks is the off stage hero of “Black Pearl,” not only as the author but also as the director and presumably the choreographer. His production is both entertaining and informative, especially for spectators who know Baker mostly by name only, which likely is the majority of the audience.
The slender and elegant Ruffin is a savvy hostess for the evening and injects plenty of fire in the belly emotion into the story when it’s time for her to take over the character from Williams. The two women end each act with a stirring duet, the concluding one leaving many a moist eye among the spectators. Williams does a fine job of portraying Baker during her early years, getting better as she goes along. Her feature dance number is the famous Banana Dance, though she wears more costume than the irreducible minimum that had the crowds going wild in Paris.
The music consists of jazz and pop music standards that threaded their way through Baker’s career, from early jazz to Cole Porter and Edith Piaf. The two starring actresses do nearly all of the solo singing, though Rhonda Preston, she of the mammoth voice, delivers a potent version of Bessie Smith’s “Lost Your Head Blues.”
The Brooks book does a good job of portraying Baker’s serious side, notably her bitterness at the racial abuse she endured in the United States, capped by a performance in America in 1936 that was shredded by the critics and booed by the audience in a ferocious display of racial prejudice. During the war Baker transmitted secret information between the French resistance and the Allies that earned her a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor award from the French government. As a humanitarian, Baker adopted a dozen children of assorted ethnic backgrounds, saving all of them from lives of desperate poverty.
Photo Credit: Michael Courier
The show doesn’t skimp the wild side of Baker’s life. She went through four husbands and countless lovers of both genders. She lived a flashy life in France, spending her fortune on a spectacular chateau where she raised her adopted children. She even had a pet cheetah. The extravagance of her lifestyle was a fierce reaction to the squalor of her early life when her single mother placed her in the household of an abusive white woman. Josephine was a waitress at the age of 13 and insinuated herself into show business at the age of 15. By the age of 19 she was a star in Paris. In the 1950’s she was a controversial figure in this country, pilloried on radio by the racist and red baiting, but powerful, newscaster and columnist Walter Winchell.
Ruffin and Williams carry the show but they do have considerable help from the large supporting cast—Kylah Frye, Rhonda Preston, Lemond Hayes (a terrific dancer), William Rowland, Linnea Norwood, Dennis Dent, Gregory Slater, Kyle Smith, Jake Stempel, Kelly Maryanski, Vincent Jordan, and Phillip Christian. They all play multiple role and play them well.
The BET production features a large wardrobe of gaudy period costumes designed by Alexia Rutherford. Bekki Lambrecht's minimal set leaves plenty of open space for the ensemble dance numbers. Aaron Quick’s projection designs end the show with a montage of images of the real Josephine Baker, giving viewers multiple striking views of the lady in her many public guises. Aside from a couple of mistimed entrances on opening day, the show moved smoothly from blackout to blackout under Brooks’s efficient directing. As usual, drummer Robert Reddrick presides with his seven-piece orchestra on a perch above the stage.
“Black Pearl” (one of Baker’s several nicknames) has the whiff of a show that should attract audiences through the summer. Brooks has obviously researched his subject well, conveying the complexities of a woman who led extraordinary public and private lives dying suddenly at the age of 68 in 1975. But it was a life worth living and she makes absorbing company at the Black Ensemble Theater.
“Black Pearl” runs through June 18 at the Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 North Clark Street. Performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $55 and $65. Call 773 769 4451 or visit www.blackensemble.org.
“Black Pearl” gets a rating of 3½ stars May2017
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