Vancouver Fringe 2019: Josephine

If Tymisha Harris’s performance in Josephine can’t get you out to the Fringe, you’re probably already dead.

I cried three times watching Josephine. The first was because I’m so grateful when I get to see the real thing: Tymisha Harris is a star.

Harris plays Josephine Baker in this solo show, which the company describes as “a burlesque cabaret dream play”.

Baker was the first international black female celebrity and Josephine reminds us just how extraordinary she was: she not only escaped poverty in Missouri to find fame in Paris, she lived a life crammed with lovers of both sexes (the list includes Frida Kahlo), kept a pet cheetah (among other beasts), adopted 12 children of various races and — news to me — was a civil-rights campaigner whom Dr. Martin Luther King invited to speak at the 1963 march on Washington.

Crucially, Harris embodies the exuberance, the sheer, fucking unleashed Eros that Baker was famous for. In character, she says, “I was crazed by the music” and watching Harris dance, you can’t help but be swept away by her physical pleasure —the sensuousness of a fan dance and the childlike glee of wacky moves that might have come right off the street. Sweet mother of Jesus, Harris is sexy: I’m old, I’m gay, and felt the pull.

Partly, that’s about how confident she is as a performer, how present and responsive to the moment, whether she’s flirting with an audience member or improvising a little dance with a feather that’s flown off her boa.

Harris’s singing voice is as warm as her nature and as agile as her body.

The day I saw Josephine, it got a little lost around the Frida Kahlo section and struggled to regain steam after that.

But Michael Marinaccio’s direction supports Harris: before Josephine emerges for the first time in her pasties and trademark banana belt, for instance, she does a cheeky little shadow dance behind her dressing-room screen as she changes.

And there’s substance to Josephine. Baker’s songs of romantic loss emerge from skilful storytelling. So I wept when Harris sang Baker’s “Afraid To Dream”. And, because this script, which was created by Harris, Marinaccio, and playwright Tod Kimbro, clearly frames Baker’s story as a struggle for racial freedom, I was moved again when this Josephine sang Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’” at the Washington demo.

There’s a line early in the script that sets you up for the dialectic between the cruelty of racism and the liberation of performance. Baker describes being a little kid in Missouri and coming across an unfamiliar structure in town. “At first I thought it was a gallows,” she says, “but, when I got a closer look, I realized it was a stage.”

In The Cultch Historic Theatre on September 5 (7:15 p.m.), 7 (7:50 p.m.), 11 (5:00 p.m.), 12 (10:00 p.m.), 13 (6:45 p.m.) and 15 (12:30 p.m.) Tickets

This review is based on a performance at the Victoria Fringe.

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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