Cheryl Howard Adds New Dimension to the Brown Venus

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Cheryl Howard portraying Josephine Baker at the Beckett until September 8th

Cheryl Howard returns to off-Broadway with a new rendition of Josephine Baker, continuing her one woman play which she has been touring throughout Europe as “Josephine the Musical” and performing in the United States as “The Sensational Josephine Baker.”  The play, presented by Emerging Artists Theatre, is presently running at The Beckett Theatre located at 410 West 42nd Street in Manhattan, just a few feet away from Chez Josephine, a French bistro, located at 414 West 42nd Street on Ninth Ave., owned by the “13th” adopted child of Josephine Baker, Jean-Claude Baker.  This journalist stopped in after the play, with French filmmaker, Mariette Monpierre (who viewed the show with me), and were treated like Queens by the bartender Evan, the maître D Jeffrey and the manager, Manuel.  The warmth and ambiance of Chez Josephine is reflected in its treatment of patrons and the beauty of its décor.  As patrons left, they mentioned they would be back and I could see where the bistros ‘bons temps et les environs agréables’ would prompt customer to return again and again.

 Written and starred in by Ms. Howard and directed by Ian Streicher, “The Sensational Josephine,” unlike her first rendition, reveals less of Ms. Baker’s childhood as Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, where she grew up poor and basically unwanted by her gadabout mother, but dearly loved by her grandmother who encouraged her 15 year old granddaughter to audition for the Dixie Steppers.  Initially, Josephine was hired as the dresser for the show and its star but eventually became part of the dance troupe.  From there Howard launches into Baker’s show biz career.

 Josephine Baker married at age 14, and was already divorced at 15.  She remarried and kept her second husband’s last name.  Eventually leaving her second husband, she moved to New York where she joined a show entitled Shuffle Along, with an all-black cast.  She eventually traveled to Paris with a troupe who performed in Paris under La Revue Nègre.  Although La Revue Negre was comprised of jazz and blues musicians, and performed tap and dances like the Black Bottom and the Charleston, the Parisians saw Josephine as a novelty and soon she overcame her shyness and catered to French stereotypes with exaggerated jungle themes.  Her penchant for mimicry and exaggerated faces bloomed into her routine, “Danse Sauvage,” wherein Baker and her dance partner wore nothing but strategically placed feathers which later Josephine replaced with satin bananas.  

 Howard’s version of Josephine was of a naïve young girl whose low self-esteem got a big boost via male attention and via the Paris Stage while performing at the Theatre des Chaps-Elysees where her nude form of erotic dancing gave birth to the term “Art Deco,” bringing about interest in African forms of art and fashion.  Ms. Baker felt a sense of freedom for the first time having removed herself from American racism.  Indeed, years later, when she returned to perform in America, once again she was reminded of America’s desire to keep non-white people in subjugation.  Baker was furious when while staying in an American hotel, her white manager was told to use the service elevator so that the hotel’s white clientele was not offended by seeing a black and white couple together.  The American audiences, comprised mostly of white people, savaged her performances suggesting she was an untalented clown.

 Ms. Howard introduces into her characterizations, a critic of Josephine in the personage of Lydia Jones, taking on her mannerisms and providing Lydia’s bitchy take on Josephine in scenes that are simply hysterical.  While Ms. Baker’s involvement in Civil Rights and her stint as a spy for the French Resistance was not part of the show, Ms. Howard did give the audience a sense of Ms. Baker’s triumphs, failures and struggles to find love, family and appreciation.  Her portrayal of Josephine’s depression and desperation to save her beloved Chateau Les Milandes and keep her rainbow tribe of children together was a poignant reminder of Ms. Baker’s fragility and strength.  Howard does this with wit, flair, pose, talent and considerable acting chops.

 Ms. Howard regaled the audiences with songs like “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” “J’ai Deux Amours” (one of Josephine’s hits), “Paris Paname,” “Shimmy Like My Sister Kate,” and “My Paris,” etc.

 I recommend going to see this play before it closes.  The last performance is September 8th.  For a 30% discount on tickets, call 212-947-8844 or go on line at www.broadwayoffers.com, Code TRTSJB.

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