If Josephine Baker was the “Black Pearl” and the “Bronze Venus,” what to call Cush Jumbo, creator and star of Josephine and I? With her pixie haircut, wide brown eyes, and generous smile, she’s certainly une
créature exquise. Splicing the story of Baker’s hardscrabble road to fame with a contemporary actress’s first shot at the big time (a TV miniseries!), Jumbo is also a helluva performer, channeling La Baker from poverty
in St. Louis to the razzle-dazzle of the Folies Bergère — all the scoundrelly men who tried to hold her back be damned. Last fall Jumbo took away “Emerging Talent” honors at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards, and after starring on Broadway with Hugh Jackman in The River, she appears bound to follow her heroine into glory.
For now, Josephine and I is 90 minutes of mesmerizing star seduction, thanks to Phyllida Lloyd’s beguiling direction, Ravi Deepres’s
vintage film touches, and costume changes galore: perfect fare for Joe’s Pub. But Jumbo’s fascination with her subject — first black
actress in France, civil rights activist in the
U.S. — comes at the price of contextual nuance. Baker’s nicknames are indissociable from a post–World War I Europe hungry for exotisme, and Princesse Tam-Tam’s apogee
in France coincided with the International
Colonial Fair of 1931: a celebration of France’s dominance over a huge chunk of the African continent and a deliberate glossing-over of
its brutal treatment of the indigènes.
But as Jumbo bellows Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” at show’s end, hagiography never felt so good.