THEATRE REVIEW: Josephine at Sheffield Studio

JOSEPHINE Baker is most recognisable to some in her iconic skirt of rubber bananas as the “first black star of the world stage”.

But Josephine, by Leona Allen and Jesse Briton reveals Baker went beyond being just a singer. She was a campaigner, civil rights activist and part of the anti-Nazi resistance.

Her amazing story, often contested by varying accounts, is told over 53 minutes, from tragic childhood, her work with the French Resistance against the Nazi invasion and the Vichy regime to 60s America.

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The play is set in a failing New York cafe devoted to Baker where the owners are in the middle of packing up. Into this scene Baker — 50 years dead — steps out, saying: “I don't look too bad for 115.”

Perhaps it’s a bit unbelievable they don’t recognise Baker, but a re-run of a series of clever sketches the cafe had once performed about her life, tells her tale with wit and style. Baker herself is in and out of scenes as she tries to tell it her way.

US-born Baker witnessed as a child vicious racism during a race massacre by white Americans in which at least 39 black people were killed in her home town of St Louis, Missouri.

After her dancing talents were spotted, she hit Broadway before, like many black Americans seeking greater equality at that time, she arrived in Paris aged 19 in 1925.

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She became a sensation. Later she also fought against segregation and racism after the Second World War.

Briton directs with lots of pace, snatching Baker’s high-energy performances and her sharp, determined outlook.  

A mural of dancers on the wall of the restaurant is utilised in the into the finale as Baker’s Rainbow Tribe of adopted children, symbolised by a bouquet of blooms in a vase, show how they can all blossom.

Chipo Kureya, in the title role, puts Baker’s heart and soul into her performance, with an other-worldy reflection on the hurt and pain that filled her extraordinary time on the planet.

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Sadi Masego and Jack Benjamin — whose main characters have a closer connection to Baker than they think — also exude charm and versatility in multiple roles.

There’s so much to learn about Baker it’s a wonder she is a forgotten figure today.

Josephine feels like merely a glimpse into her world in a show that leaves you wanting more and more.