Playwright: Daryl Brooks. At: Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark St. Tickets: $55-$65. Runs through: June 18
An Art Deco motif nowadays considered only fit to be invoked in the rarefied environment of museums is that of a smiling young African girl wearing a bikini-length skirt fashioned of bananas and very little else.
Far from being an anonymous colonialist fantasy, though, this gamine is a portrait of Josephine Baker, whose career serves as a model for female entertainers to this day. Born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, she grew up to become an international celebrity, her fame earning her not just riches and the adulation of royals, but also the power to influence the course of history.
Daryl D. Brooks calls his musical extravaganza for Black Ensemble a "tribute," rather than a biography, but it's hard to imagine Baker's story being narrated in any but a flattering light: This is the woman, after all, who refused to perform in racially segregated clubs, who carried secret dispatches for the French Resistance in World War II and who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. She also married four times, conducted countless extramarital affairs with both men and women, kept a pet cheetah in her dressing room at the Folies Bergere and adopted a dozen orphaned children of varied ethnicitybut when she died in 1975 at the age of 68 ( while performing a 50th-anniversary concert in Paris at the landmark Club Bobino ), she did so with no regrets, so who are we to judge?
A life lived this fully is not easily summarized within the limited performance time of our age, forcing Brooks to confine his text to the high points of his subject's journey from the day she fled the abuse of domestic employment to become a cocktail waitress at a St. Louis jazz club, there to become a dancer in a vaudeville chorus, eventually arriving in New York City during the Harlem Renaissance where a featured role in a revue by Noble Sissom and Eubie Blake titled Shuffle Along attracted the attention of a French talent scout. As renditions of "Blue Skies" give way to "La Vie en Rose" and "J'ai Deux Amores," we bear witness to our heroine's strength and resilience confronting injustice in the land she could never call home.
The talent is as uniformly excellent as we have come to expect at Black Ensemble, but Joan Ruffin and Aeriel Williams, playing, respectively, the mature and the youthful Baker, lend such warmth to Robert Reddrick and Reuben Echoles' musical arrangements that we feel as lucky to be in the same room with them as we would be in the presence of the legendary persona they share.