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Friday, August 29, 2008

Me And Josephine

Posted on Fri, Aug 29, 2008 at 10:10 AM

For 50 years, Freda Josephine McDonald, born June 3 1906 in St. Louis Missouri, mother a washerwoman, father a vaudeville drummer, enthralled Parisians as the "Black Venus", the "Black Pearl", the "Creole Goddess" - the one, the only, Mademoiselle Josephine Baker. She danced with erotic sensuality. And clowned unabashedly. She sang. She starred in feature films. (Look her up on You Tube. Fascinating.) She dazzled. So mesmerized were Frenchmen that 1500 of them proposed marriage to the oft-married Diva. (She did accept marriage to two Frenchmen. One at a time, of course.) A major celebrity in Europe, such was not the case back home in the US of A. A gig with the 1936 Ziegfield Follies went over like the proverbial lead balloon. American audiences, it was reported, "rejected the idea of a black woman with so much sophistication and power. She returned to Europe heartbroken". It's this wondrously iconic figure and star that dancer Leslie Carvery has chosen to present. Last night's opening performance demonstrated Me And Josephine's shimmering strengths. And also its nettlesome weaknesses. Ms Carvery possesses a lithe physicality that easily commandeers attention, smooth expressive dance skills and a louche sensual beauty to ably approximate those similar attributes of her subject. Overall, Carvery's dancing dominated the show. Unfortunately, in lieu of the dancer portraying Baker to illuminate hothouse episodes of the Diva's remarkable life and to express her thoughts (pithy often witty observations on herself: "Beautiful? It's all a question of luck. I was born with good legs. As for the rest, beautiful, no. Amusing, yes.", race: "The white imagination is sure something when it comes to blacks." "Since I personified the savage on stage, I tried to be as civilized as possible in daily life.", and her view on humanity's future:"I think they must mix blood, otherwise the human race is bound to degenerate. Mixing blood is marvelous. It makes strong and intelligent men. It takes away tired spirits.", the audience watched a TV presentation of a text-heavy Josephine Baker mini-bio. A shame that. Better to have enjoyed Carvery in a stylish lively monologue serving the same purpose. What became obvious is this. Simply, Carvery is a genuine natural performer in need of a playwright. There's ample dramatic gold to be mined in Baker's rollicking history. With much that's applicable to the present state of our society, our insatiable celebrity worship and our often cock-eyed aspirations as a species. Carvery has all the necessary attributes and tools to bring Baker to life. All the bright promise to shine in a theatrically moving, funny and profound Josephine Baker play. So, that said, my recommendation? Come for the show. Stay for the dancing.


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