Many little girls owned a Tiny Tears doll in childhood; not many of them transformed her into a mini Josephine Baker. That however is what the young woman in Cush Jumbo’s new solo show did. The girl (who remains anonymous and may or may not be based on Jumbo herself) bounces on to the stage, introduces us to the doll and assorted other memorabilia, and then suddenly morphs into Baker herself.
It’s an ingenious move: rather than just give us a biographical show about Baker, Jumbo (who both wrote the piece and performs it) switches between the two characters. At first this just seems light-hearted, creating a bit of onstage texture and droll comedy, as our guide to Baker’s life suddenly drops the narrative and steps forward to disclose difficulties of her own. But gradually this multi-layered structure – of Jumbo playing a character who plays a character – becomes revealing.
We learn a lot about Josephine Baker, the extraordinary, resilient African-American singer and dancer, born into poverty in 1906. By the time she was 16 she had already lived on the streets, been married twice, left her hometown of St Louis and badgered her way into a Broadway show. We learn about her rise to stardom in Paris, about her work for the French Resistance during the war, about her compromises and comebacks and the rollercoaster of her personal life. Things, we assume, are better for the 21st-century actress who tells her story. And yes they are, but she gradually reveals her own battles and humiliations and the harrowing personal dilemma she faces.
Most shocking is the racial prejudice. Baker returned to the US a star in the 1930s and was horrified to be made to use the back entrance of her hotel. Our contemporary girl reads a vicious racist online comment beneath a newspaper article about her (and this is definitely autobiographical from Jumbo). Jumbo asks how much has changed, and how?
None of this would work, however, if Jumbo did not also deliver a captivating, virtuoso performance as Baker, delivering her amazing dances and easily suggesting her energy and charisma. It’s a bit rushed in places and some of the pondering on success goes on too long. But, deftly staged by Phyllida Lloyd in a cabaret setting, with clever design from Anthony Ward and sympathetic keyboard from Joseph Atkins, this is a sparkling show with a light touch and a big reach.