Josephine – Fringe Review

One of the ways I’m trying to increase the number of Fringe shows I see is to try and take advantage of the 2/$12 ticket offers. Even though they are promoted as 2/$12 you can get in as a single for only $6. Of course you need to get in line to to make sure you can do that.

Josephine poster
The poster for Josephine.

My first show, last night, was late at night and so I didn’t have any wait, even though the tickets were on sale cheap. I’ll write about that show a little later. Today at noon, I decided I would take in Josephine, a one woman show based on the life of Josephine Baker, a seminal figure in 20th Century entertainment and politics. This time, I waited in line for the best part of 45 minutes.

Now, if you read Dining with Donald regularly, you know that I don’t like waiting in line. This time it was worth every minute of the wait. Josephine is one of the best shows, Fringe or otherwise, that I have seen.

Josephine a Tour de Force

A large part of the reason that Josephine is so good, is the subject matter. Many only know of Josephine Baker as the burlesque dancer of the 20s and 30s. Or, as the woman who was married four times and carried on affairs with men and women, most notably the artist Frida Kahlo.

As a performer she captivated audiences around the world. She struggled to find success in the United States, but even that arrived towards the end of her life.

Yet she led an even richer and deeper life than that. She served as a spy for the French Resistance during WWII and was a strong voice during the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s and 70s. Along the way she also adopted a dozen children.

While France was much more open than the United States, Baker was still the subject of stereotypes and assumptions surrounding Black Women and their sexuality.   These attitudes still exist today. ‘s article on R. Kelly in ESPN’s The Undefeated asks several questions that are worthy of our time and reflection. Obviously, as a middle-aged, single, white male, I’m not well qualified to speak on them, but they are questions we should be asking.

All of these things make the story of Josephine Baker compelling material for a stage adaptation of her life.

Change room for Josephine.
Josephine’s changing room.

The show is even more compelling because of the performance of Tymisha Harris in the title role. Not only is Josephine Baker’s life large, but so was here musical talent. Take some time to look up some of Baker’s singing performances on YouTube and you’ll see what I mean.

To simply pull off the repertoire of Baker requires a singer of excellent ability. Harris is such a singer. She has a voice that is strong and powerful but can still be soft and gentle. Her diction is superb and she brings a great deal of emotional and vocal colour to the songs.

Josephine's home.
Inside Josephine Baker’s home.

As a dancer Harris conveys a great range. From the saucy character of the burlesque numbers, to poignant, graceful, balletic storytelling you are drawn further into the story

If only for the singing this would be a show that I highly recommend, but Harris goes even further and inhabits the character of Baker. One thing Harris does is she keeps the tone light and mischievous. This, along with a well written script allows the audience members to understand what Baker is really talking about when she refers to the actions of husbands, lovers, critics, and enemies, all without turning the performance into a jeremiad. Baker had an indomitable spirit and this spirit shows through in Harris’s performance..

At the same time, the audience is left in no doubt that Baker was more than just a great entertainer. Harris all brings to life Baker’s strength, and resilience. Her sense of purpose and her attempt to make the world a better place for all people. These qualities are all pulled together in Harris’s performance of The Times They are A Changing. Here Harris’s performance also includes a slight lyric change that brings the song into the present, and put me in mind of Paul Robeson’s changes to Ol’ Man River.

There are a couple of interesting audience participation bits in the show, but I’m not going to say anymore as that would spoil the fun. Needless to say, with burlesque numbers and mature themes, this isn’t particularly a family show, but it is definitely one of the must see shows of The Fringe. Tickets will undoubtedly be going fast, so go out and get yours as soon as you possibly can.

As a matter of fact, if the Fringe had any sense, they would open up the covered seats in the John Hirsch Theatre so more people can see this show. Don’t worry, Harris can fill the space.



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