Ernest Hemingway called Josephine Baker “The most sensational woman anybody ever saw.” Cush Jumbo is pretty fantastic, too.
New Yorkers first got to know her as a sexy and eloquent Mark Antony in the Donmar’s all-female Julius Caesar that docked at St Ann’s Warehouse last season. And after wading in The River on Broadway, she’s swum over to the Public Theater for a revival of her solo show, Josephine and I, which won the Evening Standard Emerging Talent award.
Of course when Jumbo does emerge, late, pet dog in tow, pushing through the packed crowd and on to the Joe’s Pub stage, she gives an impression less of talent than of wide-eyed contrition and fluster. She’s in character as The Girl, a young actress rather like herself, and she’s just had a callback (her seventh) for an American cop show.
You suspect this bit is scripted – or if, like me, you read the London reviews, you know it is – but Jumbo just about pulls it off, especially as she interleaves the set text with some nice improvisation. She asks the audience to imagine how she’s feeling. “Just imagine your worst nightmare.” Then she gestures to the plates on the Pub’s tiny tables. “But with food.”
The Girl’s giddy chat is only half the show, the other is given over to her idol, the cabaret marvel Josephine Baker, whom The Girl (and Jumbo) discovered in childhood and have worshipped ever since. Movingly, the girl remembers watching “Zou Zou” on TV, and seeing for the very first time “an old movie star that looks just like me, I mean really like me”.
While The Girl describes her own (mis)adventures in showbiz (racist comments, crop tops), Josephine describes her life, from the greasy spoons of St Louis to the nightclubs of Paris. Sometimes, wonderfully, Jumbo will recreate some of Baker’s old routines. There’s no banana dance, but there is an ecstatic Charleston. Jumbo performs Baker with such passion that it comes to seem less like homage and more like invocation.
For much of the play, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, there doesn’t seem much to truss these two narratives and these two women together. Heroine worship is nice, but it isn’t enough. And while Jumbo has had a fortunate career, The Girl’s life pales in comparison to Baker’s.
But as the play continues, the thematic links become clearer and more vital. The Girl feels trapped between her personal life and her career and she looks to Josephine, rightly or wrongly, as a woman who wasn’t – who sang and danced her way out of any box anyone tried to place her in. “If you were here,” The Girl says, holding a doll to represent Josephine, “You’d tell me to get over myself.”
I’d like to hear Jumbo write in voices other than her own to better judge her as a playwright, but as an actress, she’s just smashing – brave, smart, warm, and helplessly charismatic. Good luck getting over her.