Any actress with the name Cush Jumbo–rapturously beautiful or not– is going to endure some prejudices in the unforgiving business they call show. So then, what better subject for a solo than Josephine Baker, the tantalizingly erotic, tireless dancer/singer/unlikely spy who dogged sexism and overt racism for nearly all of her 68 years on Earth? Josephine and I–now playing at NYC’s Joe’s Pub (the sleek speakeasy-like joint adjacent to the Public Theater)–stars Jumbo, the beguiling British actress last seen as one of Hugh Jackman’s hopeful lady loves in The River on Broadway just a few months ago, and to behold her whirling-dervish energy as both Baker and a flinty version of herself in this 100-minute solo will have most viewers cooing an audible ooh la la.
Jumbo, under the astute direction of Phyllida Lloyd (they collaborated on the bold, all-female Julius Caesar seen at St. Ann’s Warehouse in 2013), takes you a tour of Baker’s jaw-droppingly full life from her days a teen busker in St. Louis to her European superstardom, in an era when black women were shunned in the American performing arts, all the way up to her rousing, legendary final performance in 1968, which many critics claim is one of the best exit performances ever witnessed. Intercut within the Baker oeuvre are asides on the contemporary acting scene, in which Jumbo (with some all-too-real flourishes) relays the exasperation of being a modern black actress. (Her bit pertaining to a racist comment found about her under an Observer feature in 2012 will leave you gobsmacked.)
Jumbo, who also wrote the piece and quite nicely, could have sacrificed some of the I for some more Josephine, but her boundless, saucer-eyed enthusiasm is more than a little reminiscent of Liza Minnelli’s star turn in the film Cabaret and the show proves a great showcase for the up-and-comer. Given the play’s unique, cozy setting (Joe’s Pub pretty much is the Kit Kat Klub except, you know, Nazi-free), Jumbo makes it quite alright for you to come to the cabaret, old chum. B+