See our review of The Sensational Josephine Baker here.
Cheryl Howard’s journey to Josephine Baker spans years—and continents. The playwright and sole performer in The Sensational Josephine Baker, a solo play with music now at the Beckett Theatre, has performed on Broadway, regionally, and in Europe, in shows ranging from Into the Woods and Dreamgirls to the role of Josephine Baker in the European show Josephine the Musical. After touring the continent with the latter, she hoped it would open in New York. But when that didn’t happen, she decided to stay with Josephine and began work on the show that became The Sensational Josephine Baker.
Baker (1906-1975) emerged as a star in the nightclub scene in the early 1920s, and became one of the first African-American women to star in films, namely Zouzou and Princesse Tam Tam in the 1930s. (Howard had her own experience of seeing how Americans react to African-American “firsts”: her father was Elston Howard, the Yankees’ catcher who broke the color barrier for the Bronx Bombers in 1955.)
Baker was a huge star in Europe, but had to suffer the indignities of segregation when she toured her own country. She was as well known for her offstage activities: After working with the French Resistance during World War II, she was the first American-born woman to receive the French military honor the Croix de Guerre. Civil rights was one of her passions, and she took part in the 1963 March on Washington. Decades before Mia Farrow and Angelina Jolie, she adopted children from all over the world, her “Rainbow Tribe.” She married several times and reportedly had many lovers (both men and women).
Howard chatted with GO about distilling Baker’s extraordinary life into one 70-minute show, the star’s many amours, and the challenges of playing multiple multifaceted characters.
GO: What pushed you to write the story of Josephine? Had you written other works for the stage?
Cheryl Howard: I felt that she was an unsung hero, the first African-American superstar. She came before all the African-American female talents like Beyoncé, Diana Ross and Tina Turner. I was so frustrated that she wasn’t better known, because she has a magnificent story and was an amazing woman. Her own country sensationalized and sexualized her, but most Americans don’t know the truth of her life. She’s known for her ‘banana dance’ here, but not for her civil rights work or political work, and that she marched alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s. She received the Legion of Honor from France for her spy work during WWII. So, I wanted to bring Josephine to America [with the musical] and when that didn’t happen, I was inspired to write a play about her life. I was so inspired by her ability to bring the races together in having compassion for one another. Europe knows her better than we do in the States, and I wanted Americans to know who she was. Though I’ve written other works, mainly one-act and 10-minute plays, this is my first full length play and my first full production.
An early draft of the play was presented in Emerging Artist Theatre’s “One Woman Standing” works-in-progress series. When Artistic Director Paul Adams chose this work to develop, how did you proceed?
I felt honored to get accepted into One Woman Standing, and even more so when Paul said he was taken with my performance and he wanted to help me produce this play. Shortly after, he and I began workshopping it. I’d go to his apartment a few times a week for weeks at a time. We added and explored characters and text and the journey of Josephine’s life. Then, EAT presented a workshop production in 2010. Then, we worked on it some more, right up to the first preview.
It was very difficult to narrow it down to specific elements of Josephine’s life because she had a tremendous life. Finding her emotional core was what I focused on, and that was difficult because she liked spinning her life as a fairy tale, twisting the truth.
How did you decide what parts of Josephine’s life to focus on in a play that runs about 70 minutes?
I wanted to focus on her spirit, her emotional core, what made her tick. One of the key things I discovered is her innate desire to dance and to move. So, I started from movement because that is what drove her. I wanted to explore that. I show her as a child, and I show her dancing. We go to when she started performing in the U.S. as part of the African-American vaudeville shows, also known as the Chitlin’ Circuit. I also brought in the character of Caroline Dudley, who produced the all black La Revue Negre in Paris in the 1920s, because that show brought Josephine to Paris and changed the course of her life. Paris was obsessed with African culture at that time. When she left the U.S. to go to Europe, she discovered her freedom—emotional and physical—in a way that she couldn’t in the U.S. as an African-American woman. Being in France gave her a sense of individualism, of who she was, and of whom she was to become. Her spirit flourished.
How did you choose the other characters from her life to bring with you onstage? Was Lydia Jones, for example, the fellow dancer/frenemy you portray, a real person, or is she a composite?
I wanted to show Josephine’s journey from [her hometown of] St. Louis to Paris, so I wanted to include the key characters that made that happen. Based on my research, her mother had a big impact. Their relationship was tumultuous, but they became close after Josephine’s success. Josephine’s grandma was important because of the unconditional love she gave her granddaughter. Caroline Dudley changed the path of her life by bringing her to Paris. The French characters we see—the artistic directors of Paris’ Théâtre des Champs-Élysées where La Revue Negre premiered, and of the Folies Bergère—made her an international star.
Then there was Lydia Jones, who was a real person and dancer with [composers] Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle in Shuffle Along and other productions. But her opinions, which are ample in the play, are a compilation of different people, good and bad, and from my own research.
Bricktop—a.k.a. Ada Smith, the African American nightclub owner and impresario—who plays an important part in your show, was certainly a real person. Lydia implies that Bricktop and Josephine were lovers; what roles do you think they had in each other’s lives?
All through Josephine’s life there is a question whether she was bisexual. Based on my research it appears to be true, but not concrete. Then again, it depends on whose book you read! But what I can say is that sexuality was free during that time in the 1920s. Women moved or visited Paris to live free sexually. Ada “Bricktop” Smith was gay, but she did marry, as did Josephine. I think because it was such a banquet of freedom, people explored sexuality, so it shouldn’t be surprising that Josephine would have had female lovers. That is why I wanted to include that in the play. In her own books, Josephine doesn’t talk about her female lovers.
One thing I thought was particularly insightful in the script was that Bricktop calls out Josephine on her self-loathing and says she wants to be white. Is that something you sensed as you researched her? Do you think it was based on the way she was treated in the U.S., or how cruelly she was treated as a child?
I discovered during my research that Josephine rubbed lemons on her body to make her skin lighter. Her color was a double-edged sword: In Paris, it was an asset. Being black is part of why she was loved, but in the U.S., the country where she was born, she was ostracized and oppressed. Ironically, she popularized sunbathing in France, because people wanted to be brown like Josephine. And yet she sang a song called “I Wish I Was White.”
Still, she fought to be accepted in the world as a powerful black woman. There was an incident in the Fontainebleau Hotel in Florida where the management would not allow African-American patrons sit in the same section as white patrons, so she refused to perform unless they allowed the African-Americans to sit with whites. The management complied.
Why do you think Josephine never stayed with one lover?
I was struck by what Bricktop told her: That none of the men with whom Josephine was involved loved her for her; they loved the image and the star, as opposed to the girl from St. Louis who wanted to get married and have children and pets. She would have loved to stay with one lover, but she was such a big star, [they found it] difficult to love her for who she was.
Josephine also spent much of the latter part of her life adopting children from different cultures (eventually she had 12). Why do you think she started adopting kids?
When she found out that she could not have children, she made it her mission (because she was involved in civil rights and obsessed with racial disharmony) to adopt kids from different countries– Norway, Japan, Morocco, Ivory Coast, Venezuela, Columbia, France and other countries–to prove that human beings of different cultures and colors can live together under one roof and love each other. Her Rainbow Tribe could offer a possibility for racial harmony around the world. (Chez Josephine, next to the Beckett Theatre where the play is running, is owned by one of Baker’s sons and managed by another of her children.)
What have been the things that surprised you most about writing this piece? Are there discoveries you made that changed your view of her (or yourself?)
She had a beautiful heart and soul. And anyone who I have met who also knew her always shared how wonderful she was. And some of those people are folks who just come up to me after a show and say wonderful things about her.
She was a wild child, hurtling through the world, complicated and difficult to know and understand. And I don’t think it’s possible to really know her core, but this whole process has had a profound impact in me. Getting close to Josephine has made me more big-hearted and open to the world.
What do you hope for with this run? Do you see the play as having a life after its off-Broadway debut?
My hope for the run is for people to leave this show smiling and having a deep sense of who this amazing woman was, and that they’ll love her as much as I do. I hope they get a sense of gratification and feel that they have seen the essence and soul of this woman and the joy she brought to the earth while she was here. I hope the show will carry on after this run. I want larger audiences to experience it and fall in love with Josephine Baker.
The EAT production of The Sensational Josephine Baker (www.thesensationaljosephinebaker.com), directed by Ian Streicher, runs through September 8 at the Samuel Beckett Theatre (Theatre Row), 410 West 42nd Street. Tickets are $69.25 and are available at Telecharge (http://telecharge.com; 212/239-6200); Check TDF (www.tdf.org) and www.broadwayoffers.com for discounts. A limited number of tickets will be sold for $20 at 20 minutes before curtain as available.