Josephine and I

Cush Jumbo is performing a knock-kneed Charleston. Her elbows extend, her legs kick and flail in every direction; she has transformed into an exuberant rubbery jester. She is in the role of Josephine Baker – Franco-American cosmopolitan superstar, French Resistance heroine, and muse to Picasso and Hemingway – in her early days as a Broadway chorus girl. “The crowd go wild, they love it, they love me!” she cries. “You have to see it, man! She’s a scream!” The same response could equally describe the audience at the Bush Theatre, enchanted by the energy and range of Jumbo’s performance. A response, indeed, that is entirely deserved – for in Josephine and I, her one-woman labour of love examining Baker’s legacy, Jumbo confirms her status as one of Britain’s most formidable stage presences.

Josephine and I is not a mere biography; its treatment of Baker’s career is far too whirlwind for that. It is more a meditation on the opportunities open to black women in modern society, the heights that they can scale and the barriers still in their way. Jumbo intertwines Baker’s story with that of a modern-day black actress, the I of the title. Living with her broody environmentalist boyfriend David (“An environmentalist and an actress? What are you going to live on – Shakespeare and compost?”), she has made the final two for the acting role of her life, and has to weigh the contending pressures of career and family. For the actress, Josephine is a kind of guiding force. Her transcendence of racial boundaries, her inner ‘fire’ to perform, her first trip to big-time New York – all of these give the actress cause for parallel.

It is sometimes unclear where the character ends and Jumbo begins: much of her predicament is clearly fictional, but other details – such as a loathsome racist comment left on Jumbo’s Observer profile – are autobiographical. (Henry, Jumbo’s poodle, who she brings with her to the performance, is very much real, though hopefully the boyfriend David isn’t, as he sounds insufferable.) However, when you’re watching Jumbo perform, this question barely matters: whether it’s her recurring dialogues with a Tiny Tears doll that she has decorated to look like Baker, her recounting of her early interest in acting when she used to charge her family for private performances, or her closing rendition of ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’,’ you’re too entranced by her performance to care.

While the stage indisputably belongs to Jumbo, she is helped by an economically effective production in which she is reunited with Julius Caesar Director Phyllida Lloyd. Particularly memorable is the illustration of Baker’s ‘Rainbow Tribe’ – her adopted 12 children from countries around the world – via ceramic dolls, each representing a nationality, distributed among the audience. As the pianist behind the ragtime accompaniment, Joseph Atkins is the silent engine behind the play’s period character, and Ravi Deepres also enhances the narrative with his jazzy film sequences indebted to Henri Matisse’s cutouts.

Though Josephine and I is a very serviceable introduction to Baker, it only begins to scratch the surface of her personality. Indeed, some details are omitted in service of the narrative: Jumbo depicts Baker’s success as a chorus girl as a blow to the ‘shade system’, which favoured dancers with lighter skin, though it is now well known that Baker used skin-lightening milk baths throughout her life. However, this play is as much about what she meant as what she did, and how the issues she raised – and, indeed, embodied – reverberate through the ages. In any case, if anyone who sees the show decides to watch Zouzou or read Bennetta Jules-Rosette’s biography, then all the better.

It is hard to believe, but several years ago Jumbo came close to giving up acting. She enrolled on, and was accepted, to a teacher training course in Greenwich, and indeed in Josephine and I, her character expresses some qualms about her occupation’s social worth as opposed to a doctor or teacher. With Josephine and Ias she recently told this website – she decided to operate on her own terms as opposed to waiting for the phone to call, and in the process has proved what she’s made of once and for all.

Josephine and I runs at the Bush Theatre until Aug 17. See the theatre website for more information.