Black Pearl: A Tribute To Josephine Baker
The Black Ensemble Theater's production focuses on the life and career of an iconic, international performer
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WHEN actress Joan Ruffin steps on stage and––playing the later-in-life version of the legendary Josephine Baker––announces to the audience that it’s going to "get the unedited and uninhibited me,” the implication is that a tumultuous career that included barely-there attire and erotic dance routines is about to be showcased to its fullest.
In the Black Ensemble Theater’s production of Black Pearl: A Tribute To Josephine Baker, running through June 25, that’s what you get––a raw, unvarnished presentation of the life and career of an amazing singer/dancer/actress who Ernest Hemingway once described as “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.”
Baker kicked off her career as an entertainer during the Harlem Renaissance, performing at the famous Plantation Club and had roles in history-making Broadway revues such as Shuffle Along and The Chocolate Dandies.
In this production––written and directed by Daryl D. Brooks and to tell Baker’s captivating story––the Ruffin character is complemented by younger actress Aeriel Williams, who highlights Josephine’s early years in St. Louis and through her superstardom in France, where the charismatic performer became the toast of Paris. The two actresses, both of whom possess amazing voices and undeniable stage presence, work in harmony, with Ruffin supplying much of the historic commentary until she takes over to showcase the waning years of a star who, at 19, toured the United States with The Jones Family Band and The Dixie Steppers before becoming a Parisian sensation known as “Black Venus,” “Black Pearl” and “Creole Goddess.” Within less than a year, she managed to conquer the European audience and became the epitome and personification of European excitement.
Both Ruffin and Williams, who assume their roles with passion, don’t come together until they perform a memorable and emotional version of "J’ai Deux Amours,” translated into English to mean “I Have Two Loves,” with the popular thought that it was a reference to Baker’s loves for America, which she left because racism wouldn’t allow her to thrive, and Paris, where she was adored. But other observers point to the song’s introduction at the Casino de Paris in 1930. It is said that composer Vincent Scotto and lyricists Géo Koger and the Casino’s producer, Henry Varna, wrote the number for Baker as a woman torn between Paris and Africa.
Whatever the reality of Baker’s geographical or cultural loves, her personal love affairs apparently brought her as much pain as joy. She was married four times, with each union bringing varying degrees of happiness and sorrow. One of those marriages was to Frenchman Jean Lion (played by William Rowland), and Baker became a French citizen before the two separated in 1940 and before Lion died of Spanish influenza 17 years later.
Throughout, in a dazzling but sometimes heartbreaking show, the acting is superb, the choreography (Reuben D. Echoles) exceptional and the costumes (Alexia Rutherford) exemplary (including the one highlighted in Williams’ gyrating performance of Baker’s famous "Banana Dance"). The show’s primary stars are joined by an ensemble cast that includes Kylah Frye, Rhonda Preston, Lemond A. Hayes, William Rowland, Linnea Norwood, Dennis Dent, Gregory “Henri” Slater, Kyle Smith, Jake Stempel, Kelly Maryanski, Vincent Jordan and Phillip Christian.
With songs such as “C’est Si Bon,” “Blue Skies,” “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” “La Vie En Rose” and “Walk Over God’s Heaven” at the heart of the production, the music is supplied by an exceptional orchestra led by music director/drummer Robert Reddrick and features top-notch musicians that include saxophonist Dudley Owens, trombonist Bill McFarland, trumpeter Paul Howard, guitarist Gary Baker, keyboardist Roger Weaver and bassist Mark Miller.
In Black Pearl: A Tribute To Josephine Baker, the cast and musicians produce an educational and entertaining show that puts a glimmering spotlight on one of the most significant personalities of the 20th century. Brooks, the writer/director, sums it up, saying: “Black Pearl: A Tribute To Josephine Baker really challenges us to look inside of who we are, and understand that what makes us strong in the face of adversity is having the courage to step out on our inner strength and achieve the greatness that is in each and every one of us."
Aeriel Williams recreates Josephine Baker's eye-catching and sometimes controversial "Banana Dance" in Black Pearl: A Tribute To Josephine Baker.
Actress Joan Ruffin delivers an impassioned portrayal of Josephine Baker during her later years, and (below) Aeriel Williams handled the early stages of her career, where she interacted with stars such as Bessie Smith, played (below, right) by Rhonda Preston.
Ticket prices are $55 on Thursdays and Saturday matinees; $65 on Fridays, Saturday evenings and Sunday matinees. A 10 percent discount is available for students, seniors and groups. Buy online at www.blackensemble.org or call (773) 769-4451.