Performer Josephine Baker was a bonafide overnight sensation. This musical is not.
Don't get me wrong, it is sensational, but creator Glynn Borders has been working on this project for three decades.
"We began in 1989. We had an invitation to come to La MaMa to do something about Josephine Baker," Borders told us. "We created a little piece and I called it 'The Dark Star from Harlem.' A French reporter called her 'The Dark Star From Harlem' and at first she didn't like it — 'I'm from St. Louis!' — but eventually she liked it. And I just absolutely fell in love her."
He's been working on it ever since, following the story of young performer who came from St. Louis to Harlem and stood out as a Broadway dancer.
"She was doing her thing, crossing her eyes, jumping in and out of the line," Borders said. "She became so popular that her billing was 'That Comic Chorus Girl.'"
Iris Beaumier plays the young Josephine, who travels from New York to Paris as part of a Revue show.
"Women of color are put into tropes a lot. 'The strong black woman,'" Beaumier said. "Josephine, when she was a kid, she was just quirky and having fun, and that's been the biggest release, the most joy I've ever had on stage."
The show is historically accurate and includes many of Baker's well known routines, including the Banana Dance and, of course, the Shadow Dance:
The show looks at the atmosphere in Paris in the 1920s, celebrating black culture compared to the overt racism of the Jim Crow Era here in the U.S. Part of the recreation includes some nudity. It's not a full biography. The focus is Baker's spectacular rise to fame.
"She was so fundamental in creating all the entertainers that we know and love today like Beyoncé," Beaumier told us at a rehearsal a day before opening night. "All of these women that I stand on the shoulders of, I stand on Josephine's shoulders as well."
The show runs through December 1. Tickets are $31.
For more information, go to lamama.org